THE FILM FROM HELL

The first money my new company StereoGraphics made in 1981 was from my consulting fees working on a 3-D movie called Rottweiler: Dogs from Hell.  Chris Condon, the president of StereoVision International (which was a Burbank-based supplier of stereoscopic optics for the motion picture film industry), and StereoGraphics formed a venture called Future Dimensions, in which I would help market his line of lenses and provide consulting expertise. 

Stereoscopic motion picture camera systems are difficult to use without a stereographer/consultant but in the film business consultants may be a perceived source of trouble.  This may be a result from the days when the Technicolor Company required a color consultant who would dictate passing or failing grades on the choice of colors for costumes and set decor.  One of these consultants, Natalie Kalmus (who was at one time the wife of the president of Technicolor, Herbert Kalmus), had a reputation as a tyrant.  Nevertheless, a consultant is necessary, if a production company is doing its first stereoscopic movie.

Condon and I put together a deal with Earl Owensby, who had a filmmaking/hardware fiefdom, E. O. Productions, in Shelby, North Carolina.  He had seven large sound stages which were also used for warehouses for his hardware supply business, and many country acres including his own motel, baronial dwelling, business center, aforementioned sound stages, and an airstrip for his two planes.

I was hired to train his crew for two months, after Earl had negotiated a 99-year lease on Condon’s stereoscopic lenses. After Rottweiler: Dogs from Hell, that crew went on to shoot several stereoscopic movies and, although the only film I’ve seen was Rottweiler, I’ve heard that the stereo in the films, under the direction of cinematography Earl Dickson, was pretty good.

Just before shooting was to begin I flew with from Shelby to Miami with Mike Allen, who was Earl’s pilot.  Mike and I got into Earl’s little Aeronca STOL craft – a plane that requires a short runway.  We flew off in a thunderstorm with an Arriflex camera that needed to be properly mated to the stereoscopic lenses.  For much of the day we flew through the gray unnamable.  The Aeronca was outfitted with sophisticated instrumentation electronics so we could fly in zero visibility conditions.

Mike decided to test me and I decided I would pass the test.  He was a good old boy from Carolina, and I was some wise-ass fool from California.  When the weather cleared, Mike showed me what the STOL aircraft could do.  Mike was inhibited only by the fact that the camera was on board and he didn’t want to damage it. I did a meditation that lasted hours, relying on what I had learned from Uncle Bill, a sociable Buddhist hermit, and no matter what weird dip or roll or dive Mike pulled I remained calm, because I was wasn’t even there.  I used the sound of the engine as a mantra, a technique I have used to steady my nerves on commercial flights, which are more horrible than anything Mike could dream up.  At the end of the trip, Mike decided I was one hell of a guy (or victim).  And so I wrote this poem:

The Prop Is My Prayer Wheel

The prop is my prayer wheel,

chants Ace Drummond

in the skys above Tibet,

leading a squadron of flying knights:

Smilin’ Jack with his flowin’ scarf,

Hop Harrigan, ace of the airwaves,

Terry Lee and the pirates,

and the invincible Captain Midnight.

The pilot and I sit side-by-side

in the little low winged plane,

flying into the wild gray yonder,

on his instruments and instincts,

above the South Carolina coast.

We leave the storm’s vaporous core,

to cruise above a gorgeous realm:

Ambers and tans for sandbars,

an ocean of blues for the Atlantic,

deep greens for the forests,

and always the obstinate roar,

for we are within the machine.

“Used to sell these planes!”

the redneck pilot hollers,

showing off by peeling off

and looping the loop;

but I’ve got him fooled —

the prop is my prayer wheel,

the engine’s snarl my mantra,

mile after mile, knot after knot,

from the Carolinas to Georgia,

down the Florida coast past a rocket

looking like a model on the distant cape,

to the graveyard of drug runners’ planes.

Taking off and flying like a fool,

the pilot tests my will and draws a blank.

I’m in the sky watching,

without any will to test,

because the prop is my prayer wheel,

and the engine’s snarl my mantra.

For much of the time we flew over the coast of Carolina, Georgia and then Florida.  It is improbably beautiful — the vivid blue-green of the water and the shapes of the sandy barrier reefs. At one point we flew by Cape Kennedy and saw a rocket on the launch pad.  We refueled several times en route at small airports and Mike knew people all along the way which only gave him additional excuses to show off the plane’s aerobatic capability. At one of the airports we encounter a World War II fighter, a Hellcat.  I had no notion of how immense these machines were.  I thought of them as single person small aircraft, but it ain’t so.  The engine was mammoth — half the length of the plane. As a boy I watched these planes win the Second World War in triple features at the People’s Cinema in Brooklyn.  Landing in Miami Mike took me to that part of the airport where there were score of aircraft, some of them the size of a DC 3, parked row after row, all having been seized by federal authorities from drug dealers.  I suspected that Mike may have been a pilot playing in that game.

After visiting the Arri repair shop we returned the following day. The first week or so that I was on the set, a producer from CBS’s 60 Minutes showed up.  He and his crew did some shooting and nosed around and said that in a couple of weeks Morley Safer would be coming back with the 60 Minutes to do a segment on Earl.

There was a good Indian restaurant in Charlotte where I would eat on weekends with a girlfriend who was a news cameraperson for a local TV station.  I told Earl about their terrific food, and he told me he had never eaten Indian food.  It seemed to me that a movie producer ought to have eaten Indian food.

Earl told me that his desire to make films came from observations he made while watching a film crew at work.  One day he decided there wasn’t that much to it, and he was going to get into the business. And his films and his studio made money. One day I ran into David Nelson coming out of an editing room — a blast from the past for me because I had been a fan of Ozzie and Harriet on both radio and TV in my youth.

Earl enjoyed acting in his pictures and he had a part in Rottweiler.  He was a good-looking man who easily fit the part of the southern sheriff who liked to point his six-gun right at the lens so it would poke out of the screen in killer 3-D.  Not many people get to fulfill the fantasy of being a movie producer or movie star. Earl might have never been given such an opportunity had he migrated to Hollywood, but here he was the king of world, a smaller world than Cameron’s, but his and his alone.  One day I rode through the green hills of North Carolina to our location with Earl in his Rolls and he suggested that I stick around and direct one of his films.  Although I was flattered, life would take me elsewhere.

The plot of  Rottweiler involves dogs with super intelligence who escaped from the U.S. Army, which was breeding them to be super weapons.  After they escape they go on a killing rampage in a town.  Earl’s plot has the classic science fiction motif of Frankenstein.  The problem is technology — meddling in things that irked the creator. Bruce, the shark in Jaws, is not a man-made threat – he is nature itself.  But the human race made the hell dogs that live to kill.

The dogs could not have succeeded harming so many people if the character in the film behaved with common sense (the desire to stay alive).  Nobody would have been hurt if the Army told the town the dogs were on the loose. And naturally enough the scientist who made the dogs what they were does everything he can to protect them no matter what price is paid in human life. The citizens of the town act in increasingly stupid ways to guarantee their doom, like characters in a many melodramas.  Given a chance to get away from a dog these people managed to get cornered on rooftops, in dead ends, or in burning buildings.

People who don’t know about working on movies may have romantic notions of the experience, but it’s a lot of hard work and mostly waiting; waiting for something or somebody to get ready. It was 110 degrees or more every day, but fortunately it was an evening shoot and it was a little cooler after dark, unless we were in one of Earl’s non-air-conditioned sound stages.  Most of the show was location photography, and Earl had a large generator truck which wasn’t muffled.  That meant much of the sound had to be dubbed, even though it was recorded sync sound to serve as a guide track. The soundman with his boom had such pride in his work but little of what he recorded was used.

Many of the members of the crew of 40 carried sidearms. I was told they needed protection from the snakes in the kudzu.  Kudzu is a leafy vine that has taken over a lot of the south.  I felt it was prudent not to get into any arguments.  Despite the six day weeks, the heat and the fourteen hour days, tempers never flared.

The director, a young man named Worth Keeter, also carried a side-arm.  Worth was a competent technician who had no real interest in actors or acting.  His areas of interests were action, makeup and effects, and the set would grind to a dead stop when Worth was required to add his scar and wound makeup, which were frequently called upon since the dogs were tearing hunks of flesh out of the characters.  I learned from my camerawoman friend in Charlotte, who had gone to high school with Worth, that he dressed in a Dracula costume on a daily basis, and slept in a coffin.  Worth got his start at E.O. doing makeup and then graduated to directing. Years later Worth directed many of the Power Ranger TV shows.

My job as a stereoscopic consultant placed me between the camera and the Rottweilers.  One recurring shot was to have the Rottweilers leap out of the screen as they say on the 3-D posters, into your lap.  The stereoscopic “convergence” control, which is used for placing devil dog drool onto the audience, turned out to be at the front of the lens, and it was my job to stand there (or actually hunker) working a knob” pulling” convergence while Rottweilers jumped at the camera.  Since I have nerves of steel (more like dead broke), I was suited for the job. Sometimes the Rottweilers were chained to a plywood plank so they couldn’t go too far, and sometimes they weren’t, because the shot wouldn’t allow it.  And every now and then they had to chain me to the camera so that I wouldn’t run away.

The dogs were smacked with switches so they’d develop a foamy lather and look like angry dogs, because Rottweilers aren’t necessarily mean dogs.  I didn’t speak out at the time because I wanted to remain gainfully employed. There were Rottweilers spread all over Earl’s domain, usually behind chain-link fences and there was a large turnover in the population of  Rottweilers and their trainers. Many of the crew wound up wearing T-shirts from various training establishments all of which had drawings of snarling dogs.

I was given a small part in the film playing a tourist in a Hawaiian shirt tucked into my pants, wearing suspenders. My line was dubbed on a looping stage in New York many months later.  The actor who spoke my dialogue decided that my character should have the voice of Groucho Marx.  Since I was a Groucho fan in my youth that was kind of fun.

Finally 60 Minutes returned with Morley Safer, sporting a silk cravat.  While the crew was hanging out and shooting the making of the film, the 60 Minutes producer invited me to be interviewed.  But I was coached to complain about Earl Owensby; about Earl’s tyranny, about Earl’s bad treatment of the crew, about Earl’s lousy movies.  Earl wasn’t a tyrant; he was a fair man who was giving people an opportunity to get into the movie business.  He gave people jobs, which were I come from is a good thing.  His movies, to my lights, weren’t terribly good or terribly sophisticated, but there are a lot of movies made in Hollywood that aren’t any better than Earl’s, and they’re distributed by major studios and made by people who are supposed to be talented.  When I declined to cooperate with the 60 Minutes producer my interview was canceled.

The most serious criticism I had of Earl was that he had an opportunity to have excellent food on the set, but passed it up.  There was a restaurant outside of Shelby that served good Mediterranean cuisine, but Earl’s son, who was working on the crew, voted it down.  Instead we got served grits and fried chicken every day, but I withheld this comment from 60 Minutes, because unlike the Rottweilers, I was not going to bite the hand that fed me. As it turned out the piece about Earl was favorable, and I have one moment on the screen standing near my favorite Rottweiler, Brutus.

On the day I left E.O. Studios a big fire scene was set up. This time those pesky Rottweilers had set fire to a hotel and were attacking the fools within.  Rubber cement was used to coat the walls of the house, which was then set on fire but it got out of hand and the fire department was called. (Just like shooting the House of Wax — the roof burned off the Warner Bros. sound stage and you can see the blue daylight behind the melting statues!) This occurred as I was on my way to the airport and was described to me later by one of the crew. Nobody was hurt that day.

A year later I sat in a screening room in the shadow the Black Tower at Universal Studios, watching a print of Rottweiler with the head of Universal Optical, Pete Comendini, and the man who was going to be the director of Jaws 3D, Joe Alves.  I was peddling my services and Condon’s lenses for use on the new production, which promised to be the biggest budget stereoscopic film in years. Pete and Joe sat in the row directly behind me and as the film unfolded they began to speak over the dialogue.  I turned around and saw Joe removing his cardboard 3D glasses:  “The 3D is great.  This is the best I’ve seen.  Easy on the eyes and the effects are great.  Much better than anything else that has come through the door.  You would be amazed what crap people have shown us.  But the picture itself, it is shit,” he said.

“Yes,” Pete offered, “This is a terrible picture.  I don’t think we can show it to the guys in the Black Tower.”  The Black Tower is the office building on the edge of the Universal lot. They felt that given the poor quality of the picture, they could not screen it for the executives who would make the final decision about who would get the job of doing the 3D on the film.

Another year later I sat in a mammoth theater in the outskirts of Detroit wearing cardboard 3D glasses watching Jaws 3D.  This film was just as crappy as Rottweiler but the 3-D was a disgrace.  My feeling was that I was sitting through one of the worst movies ever made with technical mistakes so serious that it was only with an effort of will that I was able to continue to look at the screen.

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