Sunday, December 13, 2009

December 13, 2009
Kathy and I attended the True West Christmas party last night at the Brink's beautiful home on the side of Black Mountain. I believe it's our fourth time at this location and a fun time was had by all.

When Kathy was a senior at Washington High School in Phoenix and I was a junior at the University of Arizona, unbeknownst to either of us at the time, a Hollywood film crew of 165 descended on Durango, Colorado to begin filming a Western that started out with the title: "The Sundance Kid And Butch Cassidy." The date was September 16, 1968 and the team of pros had a two week window (after the tourist season and before the snow season) to use the popular tourist train, The Durango-Silverton Railroad.

Although the actors had rehearsed for two weeks prior to filming, the director, George Roy Hill, was immediately alarmed that Paul Newman was playing his part as Butch Cassidy much more hammy than he had in rehearsals. A three hour argument ensued with Hill trying to encourage the world's biggest star at the time, to tone it down and to play Butch as he had in rehearsals—warm and amiable. He admonished Newman "You don't play funny, you don't play sad, you play real." This went on for some time, and several scenes with the jokey Newman as Cassidy survive in the final film, but you wouldn't spot it unless you know the behind-the-scenes story. And since I have watched the film three times in the past week, and the making-of video twice, I can now spot those scenes. Among the other gems and tidbits I gleaned from my BCSK crash course are:

• The screenwriter, William Goldman claims he spent eight years researching the history which is quite amazing considering how much of it is wrong, especially the ending with the huge Bolivian army, 500-some strong. Still, although Dan Buck might disagree, I think Goldman is true to his opening disclaimer (see below). And, although the script was turned down by many (one studio would only do it if Butch and Sundance stayed and fought the Super Posse because, as the studio honcho put it: "John Wayne doesn't run."). Westerns are about confrontation, they said. And, besides, these guys ran away to Bolivia? You can't leave the West and call it a Western? Can you? Gene Autry never left the West. Still, in spite of the naysayers, Goldman received $400,000 for the script. He then took his family to Hollywood for a month and met with George Roy Hill every day to go over tweaking the script. I would love to know what was added and subtracted in that process.

• Paul Newman was originally cast to play the Sundance Kid but he soon switched roles and then Steve McQueen was in but he dropped out because of top billing issues. Then Jack Lemon and Warren Beatty were considered but the studio, Twentieth Century Fox, agreed on one thing: none of them wanted Robert Redford. Credit George Roy Hill for fighting for the then unknown actor to be able to hold his own with Newman. And credit Newman with showing up on his days off to rehearse with his co-star and do POVs, which most stars are loath to do. As Spencer Tracy said when someone asked him what he looks for in a script: "Days off."

• A Marine pilot who flew in two wars, George Roy Hill made the Hollywood crowd nervous because he got up at five every day, played Bach on the piano, then drove to the studio and watched a Western at 7 A.M. By his own account, he screened some fifty Westerns, from William S. Hart to Shane and beyond, taking notes and looking for patterns and styles and potential crew members. He determined from this due diligence that he wanted the cinematographer from The Professionals, but the studio said no way.

• The studio said Hill could have anybody except Conrad "Connie" Hall, because Connie had been on a failing film in 1965 and he was on their s--- list. Hill fought for Hall and ultimately got him. He also got a two-fer, since Connie came to the production with Katherine Ross, his significant other (they were married from 1969-1975). Katherine's future husband, was in the Sundance card game at the beginning of the film. He's listed as "Card Player #2" but we know him as Sam Elliott. I went back and looked at this scene and for the life of me I can't recognize Sam, although he's shot from three-quarter angle and it's in deep sepia shadow.

• There are only 12 minutes of music in the entire picture and according to my friend Lance Ross "It all sucks!" While it's true that the B.J. Thomas rendering of Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" seems hopelessly dated today, it's actually the French baroque humming scenes during the Bolivia chase scenes that grate on me. In contrast, Bob Dylan's score in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid has only grown in stature, especially since Peckinpah hated the Dylan score and took them out of his cut. And, by the way, Hill cut the bicycle sequence to Simon and Garfunkel's The 59th Street Bridge Song and then played it for Burt to be inspired. The same thing happened on the film Ghost Busters when the director cut the film to Huey Lewis and the News' tune "I Want A New Drug," and the subsequent song "Ghostbusters" was so close, Huey sued and won.

• In the bicycle sequence when Butch crashes through the corral fence and infuriates the bull, Hill imported a bull named "Bill" from Los Angeles (they drove him over to Grafton, Utah). And to get him steamed they sprayed "Highlight" on his balls and he would run. Then they roped him, brought him back to his mark and sprayed him again. I'd like to say that took balls, but that's just too cheap of a shot.

• As mentioned, Newman and Hill clashed over the Sheriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey) scene with Paul believing it should be placed right next to the outlaws' departure for Bolivia. They argued about it so much someone suggested the title of the movie be changed to Butch Cassidy & The Sheriff Bledsoe Scene.

• In the Battle for leadership of the Hole-In-The-Wall gang scene the studio wanted two changes: when Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy) challenges Butch to a knife fight, Cassidy walks over to Sundance and says he doesn't mean to be a sore loser, but if Logan wins to kill him. Redford gives a deadly smile while waving to Logan and says under his breath, "Glad to." The studio didn't like this, claiming that the Kid wouldn't allow Logan to kill his friend. Then when Butch walks up and kicks Logan in the cajones, the studio and the censor board had a fit. "Nobody had ever been kicked in the balls in Panavision," quipped one of the crew. The fight was over how long you could hold this shot (hint: not long).

• The entrance of the Super Posse was created by positioning a stationary railroad car with an elevated roof with a door three feet higher than normal (so the riders wouldn't be decapitated). A ramp was put up the opposite side of the car with the open door on the camera side. The stunt riders rode up the ramp, through the car and jumped out the open door at a run. They were paid $1,000 for this dangerous jump and they filmed it more than once. It's only about four seconds in the final edit but it's a classic sequence. "Whatever they're sellin,' I ain't buyin'" Butch says as they all run for their horses.

• When the boys jumped off the cliff into the water, they filmed the lead up scenes on the Animus River near Durango, but since the water wasn't deep enough for the stuntmen to survive a jump, they went back to the Fox Ranch at Malibu and had two stunt men jump off a 75 foot crane into a lagoon where ten outboard motors simulated a current and painted cliffs to simulate Colorado were superimposed on the sides, hiding the crane. I have to say the shot does not match the Animus Gorge in any way, but it doesn't matter in the least to the casual viewer, which would be me when i first saw it in a drive-in in Tucson in 1969.

• In the final shootout in San Vicente (shot in Mexico near Cuernavaca and Taxco), the crew utilized air guns shooting pellets with sharp shooters aiming at the walls close to the actors' heads. A documentary film of the set during this sequence showed two shooters standing on step ladders shooting above and around Redford and Newman. Man, that is dangerous work (on both sides of the camera). They also utilized an illegal Running W to trip the mule with the ammo, but fortunately the mule was okay.

• Made for about $6.5 million, the picture made over $100 million and was the top grosser of 1969.

• After a second failed marriage, Katherine Ross married Card Player #2 and they have been married since 1985.

"Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true."
—The original opening card, as written by William Goldman

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