H’wood’s Slow Shooters

When Martin Scorsese wrapped “Casino” in Vegas last week, he also inadvertently enrolled himself in a new “club” that’s attracting attention in Hollywood. It’s unofficially known as the Hundred Day Club, with membership accorded to those directors who manage to consume 100 days or more to shoot their films.

Sydney Pollack is a member, having required 102 days to complete “The Firm.” Kevin Reynolds long ago gained membership and is rapidly approaching 200, if he hasn’t already passed it, thanks to “Waterworld.”

To grasp the significance of these shooting schedules, one should remember that such fabled pictures as “Bad Day at Black Rock” or “Dog Day Afternoon” were shot in a paltry 36 days. “The Magnificent Seven,” with all its action, ate up only 42 days, and “Driving Miss Daisy” took a mere 40.

Peruse the production schedules at major studios today and you find they average out at between 65 and 75 days, or roughly twice the length of a generation ago. And as more directors join the Hundred Day Club, those averages will creep up even more sharply.

A reasonable person might well ask, what’s all this about? It isn’t that movies are getting bigger or better. “It’s about ego and power,” pouts the production chief of one major studio, who doesn’t want to be quoted by name. “Directors have the power. The extra shooting days are a reflection of that power.”

To the studios, of course, days translate into money. The price of a shooting day may range from $100,000 to $400,000, depending on the complexity of the shoot and the size of the company.

Talk to some directors and they’ll tell you days also translate into quality – there’s more time to coax a good performance out of an actor or to milk a complicated action scene.

Other auteurs would disagree, including Clint Eastwood, who recently shot “The Bridges of Madison County” in only 42 days. They’ll argue that long shoots debilitate the actors. Performances diminish, not improve, through take after take. Spontaneity is sacrificed.

Indeed, some industry veterans argue that directors hurt their careers by indulging themselves. “A Ford or a Hawks or any of the old-timers made two or three films a year,” says one former studio chief. “They kept growing as directors. Today’s auteurs make one film every three years, then they get freaked because too much is hanging on it.”

Not that the old-timers didn’t have to fight off angry producers, even with their Spartan schedules. In his upcoming biography of Howard Hawks, Todd McCarthy, Variety’s film critic, reminds us how Hal Wallis used to fulminate about “how slow Hawks works.” The crusty Wallis almost had a coronary when he discovered Hawks was shooting “Ceiling Zero” in continuity, requiring the company to make some time-consuming moves. “Let’s prevent him from even doing this in the future!” Wallis railed.

While both logic and simple economics would seem to encourage shorter shooting schedules, the trend, in fact, points in the opposite direction. “Everyone wants to hit the home run,” observes Larry Turman, whose producing credits go back to “The Graduate.” “That enormous international marketplace is beckoning to you. You start thinking special effects, big action scenes.”

“Electronic editing is the newest culprit,” says the top production man at one studio. “It’s much more tempting for a director to demand 30 takes and expose an extra 500,000 feet of film if he’s convinced computerized editing will help him make his choices. It remains to be seen whether electronic editing is really a toy or a tool.”

Typically, today’s directors also insist on shooting their own action scenes, while their predecessors relied on the expertise of experienced second unit directors.

Faced with spiraling costs, the studios would dearly love to reverse the tide. Marketing costs are impossible to control; superstar salaries climb ineluctably, irrespective of box office performance – witness the fact that Tommy Lee Jones, who got $1.5 million for “The Fugitive,” now has an asking price of $7.5 million, despite several duds.

Where’s the give?

That’s what studio execs are asking as they stare at the growing ranks of the Hundred Day Club. Since pictures aren’t getting better as they take longer to shoot, why not mandate change?

“Forget it,” scowls one studio chief. “Let’s just say some things seem to be non-negotiable,” sighs John Calley at U A.

“The most tactful way to put it is that there’s been a subtle shift in control,” notes Tom Pollock, president of the motion picture division of MCA. “Next subject?”

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