David Watkin




Catch 22

"That's some catch that Catch 22".

The New Year seems to have been a sort of key day in my film career. On the 1st of January 1948 the whole thing had started underneath Waterloo station; and exactly 21 years on (some coming of age) I was setting out for the first time, to Hollywood. The day opened with a six hour flight delay at Heathrow, during which my focus-puller introduced me to fellow traveller Michael Winner, to whom I am indebted for the most un-boring flight delay of my life.
When we met the unit the following morning, everyone was discussing the recent shooting of a young man by the LAPD. This sacrificial victim to the American Dream was a youth with a speech defect. Having well-organised parents he carried a card to show exasperated shop assistants that the boy had a bad stammer and to crave a little patience. He may have been a trifle simple-minded as he was running home so as not to miss a television programme. Now as I was soon to discover, pedestrians in LA are uncommon, and running is downright suspicious. So a police car stopped him, and when he went to get the explanatory card from his pocket, they killed him.

But it was when one of us surmised that that would see the end of one police career at least the real shock arrived.
"Hell no - the cop was right, the kid might have had a gun."
It is in my nature to be helpful,
"But he didn't."
"Our police have a doody to protect society."
"By shooting it? We'd better put a bodyguard
on Dougie Slocombe then."
(Dougie was an English DOP with a pronounced stammer, who was out there doing MURPHY'S WAR).

We may be slow aping America but our Metropolitan Police got there in the end, shooting a harmless Brazilian on the London Underground in 2005. A prolonged enquiry eventually criticised the constabulary for infringing health and safety regulations. In any other country this would be taking the piss – they had shot him seven times in the head. Other mortalities whose health and safety landed up a bit compromised include a carpenter carrying a table leg to work because Plod thought it was a gun, and a drug-dealer, naked in bed with his girlfriend (there's coitus interruptus for you).

Every film that I have worked on except CATCH 22 has been restricted as to the amount of money there was to make it with, and the comforting fact that this picture brought to light was that having too much money is a lot worse than having too little.
That should hardly have been surprising because without restriction there is no shape and each step of a creative process is choosing one word, one note, one line or one colour rather than a thousand others. Thanks to my background there was no waste in my department but in many others indulgence got seriously in the way; it's so easy to believe that because something is there it has to be used. This was best exemplified at the very end when, while the cutting-room wallowed in endless changes of mind, Robert Altman went into Mexico, made use of all our sets and shot MASH, which went out on release and completely pre-empted CATCH 22 before it had opened.
My presence in Hollywood was not exactly welcome and in the normal course of things would not have been tolerated. It came about because two thirds of the shooting was outside the US and the remaining studio work could just as easily be done in England. Paramount Studios was quiet at the time and wanted the film, moreover nobody was saying no to Mike Nichols. He had made only two relatively small scale pictures, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF and THE GRADUATE, but both of them had grossed profits of such magnitude that Paramount had no mind to deprive him of anything on the next one.

My first Hollywood encounter took place during preliminary meetings over here while giving their production manager, Jack Corrick, a lift to MGM Elstree (to get him acquainted with front projection, at that time unknown to them). Driving through north London we passed a betting shop.

"Do you play the horses, Dave?"
"No, the rushes take care of my gambling instincts."
There was a worried silence for the rest of the journey, but at least it stopped him calling me Dave.Where names were concerned Jack had an entertaining habit of getting everybody's wrong in some way. Clive Reed, the ex-Merchant Navy apprentice from the previous chapter, was invariably addressed as Clove, and you can work out who Vinni Manilli was.

Our first two weeks in Mexico were devoted entirely to rehearsals or, more precisely, deciding how certain key scenes would be staged – all fine and legitimate, provided I am not expected to be in attendance. This is because seeing the final rehearsal is when one decides what to do, and it is immediate and spontaneous, which it certainly won't be if you have witnessed a dozen discarded versions beforehand. I therefore asked Alan (my operator), once they had made up their minds which way round etc. to quietly pass on the details, and wandered outside. I doubt if any British director would even have noticed my absence let alone sought an explanation for it, but Americans are unduly sensitive and I had to explain to Mike that my best contribution to his film at this stage was not to get bored with it. He took this rather well considering.

It was not only the staging that was undecided. The original Cathcart was Stacy Keach, who seemed alarming enough to me, certainly more so than Chuck Grodin (equipped with fangs by the make-up department) who came next. Obviously we finished up with Marty Balsam, a dear man and absolutely right for the part, but what's sometimes fascinating about casting is that with Stacy it would not just have been a different actor, it would have been another film.

On our meeting for the first time in London Mike Nichols had said he saw the whole of “Catch 22” as a dream. He then went on to mention Andrew Wyeth and, although it is always irritating having an artist thrown at you, I understood what he meant.
Lazy solutions are always attractive. By merely reducing the amount of fill-light on the actors and then printing the shot lighter to compensate, the background would inherit a surreal “lift” of about two and a half times. So that decision was out of the way before leaving the shores of England.

An early encounter on arrival in Mexico was with the art director, Dick Sylbert, who, from the first rushes, perceived this technique as an insult to his location, which he had just spent a fair slice of the budget blasting a mountain pass to get to. Also he'd been going around for something like three years with a nice girl, half his age, whom he openly treated with an hauteur and condescension that did him little credit. However thanks to my camera operator (always something of a Lothario) she was soon “lifted”, like the location backgrounds. So Sick Dylbert (the Brits again I’m afraid) had a second, and extra-professional, reason to dislike my department.
Dislike us he certainly did. He had designed both “Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate” so Mike understandably regarded him as a sort of authority, and he was very good at his job, though not as good as he thought he was - no one could be that.
Another British contribution to surrealism was the first AD Clive Reed's suggestion that there should be no extras. The crowd of hippies were despatched back to Tucson, having received their USAAF haircuts, with hopefully some compensation for disfigurement, and the look of Mike's film was transformed. Yet another example of how, just because you have ordered something costly, is no reason to use it.
Giff Chamberlain, at Technicolor LA, had looked after PETULIA (whom I had stood-up in order to do CHARGE) and Richard Lester had told him all about me. So, on setting out for LA, although I didn't know it, there was a friend waiting.
Once we started shooting, the rushes, shown on a portable machine inside a Nissen hut, looked ghastly; but that sort of thing never bothers me so long as I know the negative's OK. I was being splendidly looked after by Giff and his associate Fred Detmers at Technicolor LA who were quite happy about things and when everybody went on complaining I told them to go up to Los Angeles and see the stuff properly projected. They then insisted I went with them. Set in plain terms, I had letters to write, and as the only person who didn't think there was anything wrong with the stuff my attendance was uniquely unnecessary. John Calley, who usually knew how to get what he wanted, pointed out that I would be able to indulge in a proper bath, an inducement anyone who has struggled with salt-water soap will understand, but I assented only on condition that Frank Sinatra's Lear jet, which had been hired for the occasion, was rigorously searched for arachnids before take-off (it had stood out on the open runway overnight). John agreed, "There's nothing worse than a Big T at 38,000 feet."

A Lear jet is basically a fighter plane with the interior vulgarity of a stretched limo. I had not reckoned with the American propensity to show off at all times. No sooner had we left the ground than the thing executed a 190 degree turn (literally on its side), swooped at head hight back over the camp, followed by a vertical climb to avoid the top of the Goat's Teat mountain by about three feet. The most traumatised by all this was John again, because the gravitational effect had revealed to him alone that the old bat of a wardrobe mistress was not wearing any knickers.

I must have made some progress since 1961, because Alan McCabe told me when I got back that they'd had someone else waiting at the other end of the phone to take over. That explained what seemed at the time to be rather fulsome apologies when everything came up looking gorgeous, as with Giff in charge I had known it would. He also took care of me in another way. With each batch of rushes that arrived, I would be handed a 1000ft can marked "Test for DW only". Apart from a sheaf of cinexes, which I did not need, the can was filled with Hershey bars and a variety of other sweets, which I did need, to sustain a contented camera crew.
Meanwhile back in Guaymas my camera assistant had stripped down the projector and found a wire gauze stuck inside the optical system. Similar sabotage attempts of varying ineptitude were to continue over the next eight months. There was also a constant whispering campaign, if whisper is the right word, that Mike was subjected to and he would relay their mundane recommendations, which naturally I declined to adopt.
I think you always sense the point where you know you cannot interfere with the truth of what you are doing. It becomes more clear and precise the greater the worth and integrity of the thing you're working on; with a piece of old rubbish it hardly matters. Up to now, with people like Richard, Tony and P Brook there had never been any conflict. One evening Mike asked me to take a walk with him before night shooting started, and laid out for me the Hollywood consensus about lighting movies which he "kind of went along with". CATCH 22 was a watershed for me because it was absolutely clear what I could not bring myself to do. I explained to him, that I was 6000 miles away from home, and life was too short for both of us to be disadvantaged. I'd happily stay until he found someone he would feel good with, and then we could part liking each other. He went to his camper and I went to the set, scenting already the English countryside. But it was not to be; Mike came up about twenty minutes later,

"You're a strangely reasonable man, I think we'll stay together."

After this he took to calling me Bartleby. By a kind stroke of fortune I had just read the Piazza Tales on the flight over and so knew what he was talking about. ("Bartleby", the second of Herman Melville's "Piazza Tales", tells of a scrivener who increasingly refuses to perform any task required of him, always by saying "I would prefer not to").
This seems as good a place as any to say that from the very beginning I have shot all my films for an audience of one, namely the director (though some of those may be surprised to hear it). It's natural and I never thought about it - like a girl wishing to please a lover. If she is a sensible girl that does not mean doing everything the lover wants and there again, without needing to think about it, I was protected always by a deep respect for celluloid. Later on in the movie, Mike was telling us how strange they all found the Brits. When contemplating my removal, he had asked Alan how long it would take the crew to adjust to my replacement.
"No time at all - we’d all be on the plane with David."
This was incomprehensible to Hollywood.

Orson Welles arrived to play General Dreedle, and his first day with us was scheduled to do a scene where the crews are being briefed prior to setting out on a raid. We started off with the usual wide establishing shot of him, Richard Benjamin, Marty Balsam, Buck Henry and Austin Pendleton. Ready by nine o'clock we then spent until lunchtime trying to get beyond Orson's first line. Each time he would dry, stop dead, apologise most affably and start again. I was surprised that a legend of the cinema didn't seem able to manage a line right – that is until after lunch when it became clear enough. Mike abandoned the wide shot and went instead into Orson's close-up. The first take of this was as incisive as the message to Mike that Big O was not going to say any of his lines in a wide shot with four other actors.

It is still a mystery to me why so good an artist should feel the need to dominate every scene he happens to be in, to the extent of screwing it up if a fellow actor was playing too well for his liking, or if he wasn't happy with the set-up - but that is what Orson would do day after day with every trick that his thorough understanding of film technique put into his hands. For example there is a scene where he steps down from an aircraft and everyone suddenly sets off into a fast and very long tracking-shot. As this involves a sharp pull-away it is necessary for the grip on the camera dolly to have a precise cue from the actor initiating the move, either a tiny preliminary movement (which is why people in films often lean forward before getting out of chairs) or on a given word in the dialogue. Unfortunately it was Orson who had the dialogue at that particular moment.
"When I want an answer from you I'll look at you, which will be
as seldom as possible - I will move on 'look', OK? "

On the first take it becomes clear that Orson isn't happy, because on "look" he stays where he is, the camera shoots halfway down the track, and everyone thinks it's the grip's fault (everyone except us, that is). My guess, that our lens was a bit too wide to please, proved correct, and when we changed to a 50mm, Big O moved on "look" and everything was fine.

The very next set-up was a group shot with Buck, a slight figure, standing behind and to one side of Orson. He had only one line to say but Big O obviously considered it one too many and had only to shift his weight onto one foot for Buck to be completely covered. Mike had learned by now and gave up after a couple of tries, but Buck signed to him to go once more. When the unwanted line arrived he made a giant leap and said it in mid air ; not usable perhaps but very amusing (except to Orson who couldn't see why we were all laughing).

The crafty bugger even tried to rope me in on one occasion when he wished to avoid something Mike had asked him.
"It'll be bad for David."
"Very considerate, thank you Orson, but I'll be fine; Mike can be my guest. "
Finally Mike resorted to a rather feeble
"Oh let's shoot it, I probably won't use it."
"Some drunken cutter'll use it."
Mike scanned a group, standing at the back of the set, that included our editor.
"Sam, have you met Mr Welles?"
While lighting the inside of Major Major's office one morning I sensed a fervid excitement among the American crew and eventually a flustered key-grip rushed into the hut,
"D'ya wanna meet the Duke?"
For some reason Norfolk was the first to spring to mind but I asked him to be more precise.
"The Dook - the big guy - John Wayne."
"He's an actor isn't he? Aren't there enough here for you?"
"If he met you he might want you to do a picture with him."
"The more reason to get on with this set."
At lunch I asked John Calley if Wayne was a friend of Mike's.
"Hell no, he's a monstrosity - way to the right of Attila the Hun."
It transpired that Wayne, who at the time was fucking some heiress who happened to own the particular tract of Mexican desert that included our location, simply got into a plane and landed on our runway, not considering an invitation to be necessary. The Hollywood crew worshipped cravenly but it is unlikely his failure to meet me had matched his resolve not to miss his chance the day he found Noel Coward sitting in a Hollywood commissary . The Duke ambled over and introduced himself.
"Mr Coward, I'm John Wayne."
Noel seized the outstretched hand and patted it reassuringly,
"Of course you are, dear boy, of course you are."
His trouble in Guaymas was, the LA crew excepted, no one else wanted to meet him either. So he grew disconsolate, got pissed (in both the English and American sense) fell off a bar stool and broke his ankle.

I have never been the least concerned about screen credits (the size and duration of one's name on a picture) but my feeling, that if something is good enough they'll find out who did it and if it isn't then why tell them, was not shared by anyone in Hollywood. Several enquired if I had negotiated my credit satisfactorily and I merely thought them unduly nosey about my American Express account. When the picture finished I understood rather better. There was one department head, our second unit director, who was so out of touch with the rest of us that any of his stuff would have stuck out like a sore thumb. When I drew attention to this, I got told severely that Bundy was Hollywood's greatest son, and was responsible for the chariot race in BEN HUR.
"That was Yakima Canutt."
"No, no, it was Bundy."
After four months of incompatible material had accumulated Hollywood's greatest was quietly removed and someone else took over. It was not really incompetence, just that Bundy’s competence was relentlessly focussed on another era of film-making. Nevertheless, regardless of the fact that nothing of his was in the finished film, the screen credits bore exactly what Bundy's agent had negotiated for him.
A few years later I sat at lunch next to Charlton Heston, who had played the title role in BEN HUR, and asked about the chariot race.
"That was Yakima Canutt."
"So I thought, but they kept telling me..."
"Oh Bundy was there but he didn't do anything."
I never worked with Yakima, but someone who did described him as "unassuming", hardly an asset for a Los Angeles agent.
Several pictures on, something even worse happened, again a Hollywood man but this time the designer. He was rightly fired after the first week as we were unable to shoot with any of his sets. At this his only reply was,
"You understand my name will still be on the picture."
I asked the producer why they'd hired him in the first place.
"Well we thought he'd done a good job on another movie,
but now we find he was fired off that as well."
They are so different from us, no wonder we can't understand. If I was fired off a picture, however much or little of my stuff was used, that is the only time I would take an interest in the credits - I'd not allow my name anywhere near them !

One of the things that Bundy had been unwilling to do was to photograph anything against the light. Clearly raised in the Box-Brownie tradition the sun shone relentlessly on his camera-operator's shoulder blades. One day in the theatre, after some forty-odd minutes of stuff that looked as if it came out of a different movie, there was about fifteen seconds where the film was left running after the camera plane had peeled off at the end of a shot - suddenly fifteen seconds in the right light. It seemed a chance to get through to Bundy and I grabbed it.

"Bundy - that's terrific, it's absolutely beautiful. I can't think
why you shot the other three quarters of an hour."
Outside the theatre John Calley put his arm round my shoulders.
"Go easy on Bundy will you?"
"John - I was charming to him."
"Well let me know if you're gonna to be vicious."
If the best special effects man I knew was American (Bob MacDonald on CHARGE) certainly the worst was Lee Somebody on this one.
There is a long dialogue scene, tracking two actors walking parallel to the runway. An aircraft in trouble, with smoke pouring from it, flies past in the background and when the camera pans them round it is seen lying a wreck ahead of them; then it blows up. This is simple to do. The one non-airworthy B25 lies in position all the time and the action plane climbs steeply out of the way before the camera pans around.
After take one, the SFX were overheard talking about a surprise for Mike. Now the very things that are not wanted from the SFX are surprises. We need to know exactly what is going to happen; nothing more and nothing less. I personally took the precaution to stand well away, and this time there was a gigantic explosion that not only could have thrown the actors off, but completely destroyed our only prop aircraft so that Mike could not have had a take three however much he needed one. It was my first experience of "shock and awe".

Their ultimate absurdity came with the night raid on the base. For bomb hits they had dug some large pits in the distance loaded up with dynamite and plastic bags full of petrol. Frank Tallman, the head pilot, wanted to know the extent of these, on the reasonable grounds that he needed to judge how close he and his followers (who had to fly through them) could get without being blown out the sky. So they obligingly set them off for him. Half way into the shooting, although deafened by the same massive explosions ("beauties" they chose to call them) there was nothing to be seen. They had run out of petrol, which left us with plenty of shock but no awe. Mike, of course, intent on his actors had failed to notice, that is until he asked for another take and Alan McCabe told him it would be better to do it on a stage against black velvet". Lee did not understand the fuss.

"We used all the gasoline the first time."
"Sorry I can't photograph a noise."
When later on I said perhaps Lee was Bundy's father, they thought I was being unkind.
There were certainly some amazing people about. Meta Rebner the continuity girl, a forceful Southern lady in her seventies, had enjoyed the favours of no less a writer than William Faulkner and would broadcast this undoubted fact every possible chance she got. Although after a time this grew a bit tiresome I liked old Meta and, remembering that she had worked with Tony Richardson when he directed THE LOVED ONE in Hollywood, the next time I saw him I asked how he'd got on with her and had she by any chance mentioned Faulkner. He said she certainly had but he'd decided to put a stop to it by telling her that he'd met several girls all of whom had been Faulkner mistresses.
"Yes, but he didn't fuck the others!"
When he interviewed her for the job, being Tony he asked nothing about whom she'd worked with or what pictures she'd done.
"Why are you wearing those long white lace gloves?"
"Aah always wear long white lace gloves when aah come
to see people like you Mr Richardson."
Paramount Studios employed two eighty year old process cameramen whose job it was to line-up and prepare any back-projection shots in advance. They were both named Ed but that is where the likeness came to an end. Ed Schneider was a quiet old man who never spoke, which was offset by the suitably named Ed Hammerass who never stopped. One day I wandered onto their stage to find the projector some thirty degrees out of alignment with the camera, an error so elementary as to defy comment, and I drew it to their attention without making any.

"Schneider and I have been in this business sixty years apiece - that's a
hundred and twenty years' experience, how many years have you got, son?"
Nothing like that of course, but then a hundred and twenty years' experience doing something the wrong way might be of less use than he seemed to think. To this he replied,
"Remember, I vote for the Oscars."
There was certainly a grand preoccupation with prizes among these people. I was twice accosted while walking between stages in Paramount studios by complete strangers for no purpose except to inform me that they were Bud or Hank Such-and-such-a-body who'd got an Oscar for this or that film. They then went happily on their way, no reply being called for. You can have enough of almost anything and when told by someone on the unit that my gaffer would probably get me an Oscar if I'd only let him light the set instead of telling him what to do, I mentioned that although less prestigious than its American counterpart there was in fact a British Film Academy whose award was held by one of the English crew, and named David Garfath, my clapper boy.
"Really? Little David? - for loading?"
"More the tea, actually."

I experienced a memory jolt in Doc Daneeka's office one morning from what appeared at first sight one of those albums that were given away by the tobacco companies before the war to house sets of their cigarette cards. The blank spaces in this booklet however were waiting to be filled by its owner with a series of personal initiations,
My first day in the army.
" " serjeant.
" " buddy (careful!).
" " time overseas.
and from here relentlessly onwards to
My first wound.

(did any obsessive collector shoot himself in the foot rather than leave this one blank?). There was a final glorious caption awaiting completion by next of kin (which I suppose is better than being charged for a blanket). I handed this astonishing item of set-dressing to Mike who asked the second unit to shoot a couple of inserts in case he found a place for them, and with his customary unerring instincts Bundy turned in several thousand feet of it resting on a red velvet cushion, lit by a guttering candle.
There was a number of large-scale exercises in CATCH 22 and the largest that involved process, in that or any other film I've had a hand in, was when Yossarian realises that they have been sent to bomb a town of no military importance and drops the bombs harmlessly into the sea. Mike wanted to do this without any cuts - to open close on Alan Arkin through the perspex nose of the plane, widen to include the pilot and co-pilot, and finally all the way out to reveal the whole aircraft with the squadron flying behind. It was a choice between blue screen or front projection, both of them costly since it involved suspending an entire B25 bomber inside a stage. The plane itself was so heavy that an inner wall of scaffold tube had to be built around the stage to carry the lighting because the roof could not support any more weight. Front projection was well in advance of blue screen at that time so that was what I chose to use. (For the technically interested the shot started at 250mm and ended on 25mm using the whole length of a 10 to 1 zoom. The screen was 80 feet across, and the stop was 12.5).

It is obviously undesirable to have a B25 in a Paramount stage with both engines going flat out - it was unlikely to remain there long enough; so my crew came up with twelve polished metal spindles turned quite slowly by an electric motor, in place of each propellor. This was after a Hollywood specialist, "the Doc", had been called in and handed a massive fee for suggesting we shoot a long dialogue scene at eight frames per second!! We shot a quick test on the spindles to see if they would work, and for no other purpose, so the shot came on the screen with the rushes the next day looking exactly what it was supposed to be, the answer to a question not an advertisement for me. This was the signal for the anti-Brits to go into action once more and the following day, tagged onto the end of the rushes, was a process shot from a film they had made about Pearl Harbour. It depicted a Japanese plane without any perspex on the cockpit-cover in a steep dive, firing guns from which the smoke curled upwards in delicate ringlets. It was ludicrous but arguably better than my test. Unfortunately for them Mike did not see rushes that morning and so missed this gentle hint. We made our shot the same day and achieved the only kind of success there is with a process shot - you could not tell it was process. When the lights came up I reminded them that there was something they had wanted Mike to see the day before. There was total silence at this and in spite of all my coaxing the shot from TORA,TORA could not be found.

Sometimes farce and tragedy are no distance apart. By the time Johnny Jordan, the air-to-air director/cameraman whom I had wanted in the first place, arrived in Guaymas to replace Bundy, the main unit was on the point of moving to Rome. Both Mike and I explained that Ferrara (the bombs in the sea shot) was going to be done with front projection and therefore was not on his list. But with us six thousand miles away somebody anxious for a pat on the head had other ideas and Johnny was told to fly the shot using doubles for the three actors. This was intended to present Mike with a fait accompli and pressure him into abandoning the costly studio version. It was a feeble piece of chicanery that was alas to prove far more costly. Something went wrong during the first attempt, Johnny was thrown from the camera plane at 4000ft and killed, attempting a shot that could never have been used.

Similar politics had already caused a near disaster. Hungry Joe standing on a raft in the sea to photograph McWatt's plane gets sliced up by the propeller, leaving only his legs standing. It may appear difficult but in fact there is a simple way to do it. A shield with two hand grips at the back to cover the top half of the body, and covered on the outside with front projection material, could be held by the actor against a waistband of make-up blood. With a brute positioned just above the camera on the shore the density of the shield could be matched to that of the sky beyond it. The actor could then dance a jig for as long as required, provided he kept face-on to camera and fell off the raft backwards. It was safe and effective, its only drawback being that it was suggested by me. The special effects department had built a dummy that could be blown in half by an explosive charge and to my disbelief this method was insisted on. I have never seen anyone cut in half by an aeroplane but I do not believe their demise would be attended by an orange flash and clouds of black smoke, whatever they'd had for breakfast. I said this with due modesty and diffidence but to no purpose, and several ludicrous attempts were made. Finally a hand from the disintegrating dummy got lodged in the tail-plane and the pilot nearly crashed into the sea. Only then, faute de mieux, was my idea adopted and within twenty minutes the shot was made that is in the film.

Unfortunately his demise is about all that remains to be seen of Hungry Joe in the movie although we shot a lot of material of him taking flashlight photos around the base. I had thought of a device to make these more fun because what usually happens is that the flash affects only a single frame or else is hidden behind the shutter, in which case nothing is seen of it; editors then splice in a couple of frames of clear celluloid resulting in something that passes for a flash about as successfully as printing everything blue convinces anyone of bad "day for night". I asked my crew to synchronise a distributor from an eight cylinder motor car so that it would fire off eight magnesium flash bulbs bang in the middle of eight consecutive frames. The Heath Robinson machine they came back with worked a treat, expanding the flash like stretching a piece of elastic. The best part was that the picture never disappeared during the flash - the image continued on the screen, but for one third of a second it was of surreal brightness. If Hungry Joe was in the shot the second of the eight bulbs was screwed into the flash attachment of the prop camera he was holding. Mike then wanted to take it a stage further so that the actor could replace the bulb and take a second picture without cutting the shot. My crew obliged him with a control box having a two-way switch and a firing button. It is usually a mistake to let directors have buttons in their hands because they get carried away watching the performance and in this case Mike forgot to release it after the first flash, so that the instant the actor put in the second bulb it went off in his hand, taking the skin off his fingers. Perhaps he played the piano or the violin because he got very upset; but no matter how successfully an actor may portray a secondary character in a movie, to address its director as a dumb mother-fucker, with however much justification, is unwise. Mike cut his scenes out of the picture, and my eight-frame flash joined the growing list of ideas that never reach the screen.

Although by the time we got to Hollywood the unit had been together in Guaymas and Rome for nearly six months, permission was refused for the two junior members of my crew to work inside the unholy city. The BAFTA award loader was packed off home, but Mike, who may have guessed what was coming, insisted that the focus, Peter Ewens, remain in LA "on holiday".

The script calls for Alan Arkin to go from his station in the nose of the aircraft to the dying rear-gunner in the tail section. To do this he must crawl snakelike through a narrow corridor the entire length of the fusilage, climbing up over the bomb bay and down again en-route. This was our first task inside a Paramount stage.
The camera needed to track backwards about two feet ahead of him where there was barely room enough for a wild Arriflex and certainly none at all for anyone to operate it. Nelson Tyler, the designer of camera mounts for aircraft, had prepared a remote camera head fixed to an arm passing, through a self-sealing slit in the fuselage, to a geared head on a Chapman crane running along the outside, Unfortunately the primitive video image was so blurred as to be all absolutely useless for focus.

This led to my establishing what I believe to be an unchallenged hat-trick by firing a focus-puller on each of my first three consecutive days in a Hollywood studio. The fourth day Peter's ‘holiday’ was interrupted and he was allowed to attempt what we were all assured was an impossible shot. But whereas each of his predecessors, relying on a perfect excuse, had not bothered themselves - Peter quietly observed what was going on, crawled behind the camera himself a couple of times, had a quiet word with the actor and got perfectly acceptable results.

It required a moment or two's thought, but lighting this twenty-inch passageway (a good job Orson didn't have to crawl down it) proved remarkably simple. I asked for the floor to be made of two inch thick perspex (plexiglass to them) complete with moulded rivets, and below the plane set a series of photoflood boxes with the side towards camera painted black, and that facing the actor white. Only Alan Arkin would see any light – with the blackflag behind it, the floor would look as dark as the sides and roof.
Eventually, of course, the cutting rooms got to work and chopped the thing into smaller sections (probably rightly – it was interminable) but at least they were given the choice, and Peter was allowed to finish the picture.

My belief from the early documentary days that danger contributes nothing became an axiom on CATCH 22. In the very first week we were quietly filming Korn, Cathcart and Danby on top of the control tower at the side of the runway. The second unit had been in the air and were coming in to land and from an excess of bravado were doing it in far too close a pattern. One aircraft, piloted by Ed Mitrani, lost control through being caught in the prop-wash of the one in front and came hurtling towards us, well below the height of the tower we were standing on, weaving alarmingly. It is interesting to discover how one's mind functions at the brink of annihilation. I could reduce my bit of the target area by as much as five feet by lying on the floor, a posture there was still time to adopt calmly without getting grazed or bruised. On the ground below people were scattering in all directions although interestingly all the ground-staff, who understood about flying, ran towards and not away from the sick plane; that way the crash happens behind you. There seemed no possibility it could avoid hitting the tower but at the last moment one of the spluttering engines fired up and the wing tipped just enough to clear us by about two feet. It is odd sitting down to lunch with someone who has just nearly killed you, and thanking him for contriving not to.

The time arrived a week or so later to set out no less than eight camera positions for a mass take-off of the squadron. It might look bad if I was not in attendance at one of them so, with Ed Mitrani fresh in mind, I tried to think of somewhere these machines could not get to, and soon hit upon backwards.
"Alan dear, what's the longest lens we have?"
"Let's set up on that at the back of the runway"

Seventeen B 25s at full revs with their brakes hard on would be as close to a hurricane as makes no odds and Alan told me it was my job to keep an eye on the director's wig. Happily this stayed fixed throughout, despite a parked jeep being blown along the runway behind us, with the driver running after it like a lady chasing her hat in a gale. The pilots hit off their brakes one after the other and our 800mm, initially selected for the safety of the camera crew, secured one of the best remembered shots in the picture. When the planes had become tiny specks in the distance Alan locked off the Moy head and told Mike we should do it again, a gigantic exercise, which meant coming back another day. It is perhaps the best example of what a great operator Alan was. He had realised that if the squadron were to bear right once they were airborne they would take the camera to the control tower and a seamless transition to the next scene – Milo and the egg.
The only other change, second time round, was a toughened optical flat in front of our spanking new 800mm lens which Panavision was obliged to send down because the front element of its predecessor was pitted and scratched to fuck by all the Mexican grit that had been hurled at it.

One day in Oblatt's, the diner just outside the gate of Paramount Studios in Marathon Avenue, I was introduced to the great American cameraman, Harry Stradling. He had just got in from shooting in Brighton, and we soon agreed we were in a crazy business - here was I six thousand miles from home, filming in his town, while there he was six thousand miles from home filming in mine!

There is a custom in Hollywood that the chief electricians do most of the set lighting (leaving the cameramen free to poke their noses into the operator's job), and my Gaffer, a very good one, had tried without success to continue with this arrangement on my picture. Earl Gilbert had not given up the attempt for eight months and when there was only about a week to go I thought I’d try some comforting words, "Never mind, Earl, you'll soon be back with Jimmy Wong Howe." Because I'd never known him get emotional over anything, his response was a surprise - he spat on the ground,
"He's worse than you."
Dear Earl, he's been so nice to me since.
CATCH 22 was my first job in The States and I started off with the natural assumption that at least we had the language in common. That of course is wickedly deceptive because although you may be employing the same words they don't convey anything like the same meaning. Meanness is not parsimony for instance, and when Mike Nichols said that something I'd done "killed him" I was astonished to discover that it meant he liked it; and although enough of a linguist to explain to a startled native that the camera crew were only laughing because in England, "fanny" is at the front, Mike in turn needed assistance with "not half".
"Does he mean yes or no? "
His habit of calling the actors "mothers" after every mistake puzzled me for a bit (there is nothing motherly about Orson for a start) until I realised it was short for "mother-fucker". The Oedipal implications are erroneous. The expression has its origins in slavery; black children applied it to the slave-masters simply as a straightforward description of what they were up to most of the time.

There was one quiet moment when I asked Meta if she had such a thing as a rubber, and she was further put out when the BAFTA Award clapper-boy (who occupied the chalet next-door to hers) offered to knock her up on a morning when we were given an early call. Finally it is important to bear in mind when asked if you would like some coke, that you will not necessarily be handed a drink; and should your dinner guests ask if they may wash up, not to construe this as an offer to do the dishes.
Long after I believed myself too well grounded in the vernacular for this sort of thing to happen there was a recurrence in 1992 on a picture in Utah. The very first day we were in a town called Ogden and the chief electrician, whom I had barely met, said,
" While you're here you must see the Browning exhibit."
Amazed for a moment, having always thought they went to Italy, I then felt even more astonished that a Hollywood gaffer could be that heavily into Browning. In fact of course there was nothing untoward at all - I was merely thinking about a poet while he was talking about a gun.
When I left LA for home, at the end of the picture, I had a final report from Technicolor in my pocket.

There will be a slight density and ratio adjustment, which will arrive in Mr O'Steen's hands about the time your balloon is flinging out its ballast, London bound.
Bon Voyage, and blessings too.


The more rational one's behaviour the more likely it is to be seen as odd. My attention was drawn years afterwards to an entry in Buck Henry's diaries (published in LIFE Magazine) about lying on my back staring through a dark filter at the sky. "Some of us thought he was trying to perform a miracle" (true in a way) "Others are sure he simply sleeps in that position." The fact is it is sometimes necessary to match the light in a sequence on a day of shifting clouds. If the sun is anywhere near the azimuth the alternative to a crick in the neck is to find a comfortable spot and lie down to the job.
Sylbert had died leaving an autobiography unfinished and the job of completing it had fallen to Sylvia Townsend ("Designing Movies." 2006) who contacted me to ask about CATCH 22.
There is a facility (if that is the word) on DVDs that instead of the sound track of the film you can listen to the director talking about it. Warned by friends that these commentaries contained occasional flattering references to myself I deemed it unwise to open this particular Pandora’s Box, but Sylvia asked if I would undergo the thing before any more expensive phone-calls between LA and Brighton.
It turned out to be a duet with Mike and a nice man called Steve Soderburg, and the first absurdity was soon apparent. Unfortunately no shot stays on screen for long so unless you freeze frame for three or four minutes the subject under discussion is way past what you are talking about. But it was revealing about how memory works (mine as well as Mike’s). The nice things he said about me could be true I suppose, but a couple of other details certainly were not. It was a surprise to learn it had not been Alan McCabe who did the time-lapse of the sun rising behind the “Goat’s Tit” mountain for the title backgrounds, but an individual called Wingford Shirl, whoever he was (a relative of Bundy’s perhaps). And “The special effects were always trying to surprise me” is, alas, not ironic.
Alan died long ago but I can imagine the delighted glances we’d have exchanged at Mike attributing to him the easy way to bisect Hungry Joe on his raft. Certainly no problem for me, I might have thought the thing up but I knew it was only Alan who could sell it to Hollywood (by far the greater achievement) and it makes up for Wingford Shirl.
Most shocking perhaps was the posthumous apology for refusing to meet John Wayne when he gate-crashed our location in Guaymas. If any act of omission on my part resulted in Thatcher getting pissed and breaking her ankle the only apology on offer would be that it hadn’t been her neck.
Thirty years after, sad to say, the impression was that many of them were now, in the political climate, ashamed of their film and, with the shining exception of Marty Sheen, wanted to distance themselves from it.