Hey folks, Harry here with a tale of high intrigue and adventure. Once again, Harry broke out the AICN funded Blackbird and darted out to Los Angeles for a series of missions and situations that one could only find in this city of angels and gaffer tape.
I let Moriarty know I was coming, and to book me a room at the fabulous Moriarty Labs Spa And Resorts, it’s worth it folks, if not just for the cement room of celebrity ex-sweethearts he keeps. A truly prized collection.
Well, while I had business meetings this trip… there was another motivation for descending upon this cinematic city. I had been challenged in Talk Back as to whether or not I could get on the set of FAIL SAFE, the film to be directed and performed live on CBS this Sunday night. You see, with a cast like Richard Dreyfuss, George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Harvey Keitel, Sam Elliot, James Cromwell, Brian Dennehy, Hank Azaria, Noah Wylie and on and on… Then, in addition to that, the fact that I happen to love the original FAIL SAFE directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, Dom Deluise and more… well… I was interested in the project.
When I arrived, I looked at Moriarty and commented how cool it would be for he and I to take the Time Machine and visit the FAIL SAFE set the night the show was performed live, and basically watch how it was done. Moriarty smiled his toothless grin at me, and came back with a small handful of jellybeans, and as I looked at his flower adorned bean bag time machine, my… memory of the pain twitched inside my noggin.
“Knowles, you coward!”
I could tell Moriarty was overjoyed by my sudden change of plans. I told him.
“Send Henchmen Mongo to the Warner Brothers lot to get us a car with a drive on pass in the window and come pick us up.”
Moriarty issued a series of strange commands, then scratched Mongo under his chin and set the Henchmen loose into the sewer lines under Warner Brothers, ya know… you wouldn’t believe the amount of shit under Warner’s belt. It’s amazing. Why… Under the PETERS ENTERTAINMENT bungalow alone there must be a veritable mount… Well, anyway. As we awaited Mongo’s return, we began placing bets on whether or not he’d get us Lorenzo’s car. Moriarty felt he’d return with Joel Silver’s hovercraft. I wanted him to hijack the Malpaso Stagecoach. Instead, when we heard the roar of an amazingly powerful engine outside the window, we ran outside to find Mongo and this other bloke sitting in Stephen Frears’ MUSTANG! My gosh, he got the director’s car! Turns out that Henchman Mongo can't drive and kidnapped this... P.A. and forced him to drive this car to the surface level telephone booth elevator entrance to the Labs.
Moriarty scratched Mongo's belly, and then took this mighty car and our hostage into the heart of Burbank. Now mind you, I was not in disguise. My feeling is that Warners is so unaware of what is happening within their own studio, that if I was spotted and recognized, they’d just assume that I was supposed to be there. On this beautiful Sunday afternoon, I was in a Hawaiian Shirt mood, so… I was… not in hiding.
We found the production office of FAIL SAFE and set about to scour it for information. We found a couple of pictures that we’ll be using here within this report. And when we entered the producer’s office and in particular as we approached the desk of George Clooney, we saw…. THE MOST FABULOUS OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE.
This time, it is not protected by Gilliam beasts, nor does it lie in the Time of Legends. It merely sits upon Clooney’s desk without so much as a suspended cage to catch you, nor David Warner in sight.
The old man and I shook as we beheld this folded card. This was it… the item that haunts the male psyche… that ticket that even Wonka never got. Upon that desk sat an invitation to… Hugh Hefner’s Overnight Birthday Pajama Party at the PLAYBOY MANSION. On the cover stood Hugh… and on either side of him, stood 4 of the most beautiful women in the world.
Moriarty and I began crying. It was… a time of sorrow. For instantly and with no doubt, we realized that in the history of sad sad things, never before did we even know what was the most fabulous object in the universe… till this moment. I went to touch this illuminated invitation, and it scorched my hand. Moriarty scoffed, and then reached, and it burnt his finger something awful. So we bent down and smelled it… Oooh, the scent of the mansion. Ohhhhhh…
After making the carpet moist, we decided to find the set…. Put the past behind us… locate George Clooney, cut off his hand, and then return to grab THE MOST FABULOUS OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE.
We had found out via papers and schedules and such that the big set was on Soundstage 15, so we hypnotized this woman named Amy Cohen that I had recognized from FULL TILT BOOGIE as being George Clooney’s assistant. She hotwired a golf cart and then we set out to hit the OMAHA ROOM, and our first set of the visit.
Moriarty here, and I’ve been on all the various Warner stages over the years for different films, and it’s always strange to me to step onto a stage I have memories of and see it dressed completely differently. Stage 15 is the one I always think of as Shreck’s department store from BATMAN RETURNS. Can’t help it. It’s just the first association I make. Maybe it was coming face to face with Walken in makeup, or maybe it was having Tim Burton freak out and throw me off the stage… whatever the case, it was interesting to walk onto the stage and see the backs of the OMAHA WAR ROOM sets. Right away, it was obvious that this was a big set. Amy, who was a great host and who seemed to be really funny despite being under heavy hypnosis, led us around the right side of the stage, into a small hallway that was cluttered with what looked like old ‘60s-era computer banks. As we stepped past them, we looked to our left, and both Knowles and I stopped.
We were in Strategic Air Command headquarters.
Whatever I was thinking when I first heard about them doing FAIL SAFE live for television, I was wrong. I think I had PLAYHOUSE 90 in the back of my head somewhere. For those of you who don’t catch the reference, that was a television series in the ‘50s that featured live performances of plays by writers like Paddy Cheyefsky, Rod Serling, Tennessee Williams, William Saroyans, and so many more. It was the standard for live TV drama, and it was the buzzword I’d had in my head for weeks. “It’s a new PLAYHOUSE 90,” I had convinced myself. Well, the hell with that. PLAYHOUSE 90 never got to play with sets like these. It never took place on two separate soundstages with a 22 camera setup. It never attempted a production on the scale of this one. And it definitely never had the Omaha War Room from Strategic Air Command headquarters.
This is a massive set, with one end of it dominated by a wall of video screens. There is, of course, “the big board,” as George C. Scott called it in DR. STRANGELOVE. It’s a really sophisticated display in this production, with several hundred key cues of animation that have to be timed exactly to the dialogue of the actors in the show over the course of the 2-hour run. All around the big board, there’s other monitors. While we watched camera blocking on the set, they actually used one of those monitors as the set monitor, easily the biggest one I’ve ever seen. Everyone on the set was rehearsing in street clothes, and there was a fair amount of activity as Brian Dennehy, Tommy Hinkley, John Diehl, and Sam Elliott all walked through their paces for the unseen Stephen Frears, who we could hear over a loudspeaker. Right smack dab in the middle of the set stood George Clooney. As soon as he saw the unmistakable cartoon visage of Knowles, he peeled away from what he was doing and made his way over to where we were. We introduced ourselves, he introduced himself, and then he asked us why Amy’s eyes were all crossed and glassy. The man’s sharp -- he knows a hypnotized personal assistant when he sees one. George assured us that we wouldn’t be thrown off the lot as long as we let Amy go, so I snapped her out of her trance. As she tried to get her bearings, we started to walk around the War Room with George as he shared his thoughts on FAIL SAFE and why he would try something so openly suicidal.
See, Clooney’s a realist. He’s a guy who knows that there’s always going to be a place for him on network TV after having a run like he did with ER. He’s got an overall deal at CBS and Warner, and both companies are interested in whatever TV work they can get out of him. At the same time, he knows full well what sort of restrictions exist on network TV, and in a time when THE SOPRANOS rules supreme as the most daring, innovative narrative work in the medium, it is hard to do anything truly cutting edge when dealing with a standards and practices department. As a result, George has been looking for some way to make television exciting for both the performers and for the audience. Live television is definitely that, especially on this scale. Here’s something no one’s done before. Sure, both George and Noah Wylie were part of the live ER broadcast a few years back, but that’s not the same thing. In many ways, George considers that episode a valuable lesson in how not to do things with this broadcast. For one thing, FAIL SAFE is in black and white and slightly letterboxed, with photography being supervised by the legendary John Alonzo (CHINATOWN, SCARFACE). “Live color looks like porn without the good parts,” he said. He also feels that it was madness to try and recreate the same pacing and shooting style as a regular ER episode. He brought up M*A*S*H as a show where, when they did special episodes like the famous documentary one, they were smart enough to change the style of the show completely for that episode. They lost the laugh track, changed the entire energy of what they were doing. This time, since FAIL SAFE isn’t something that’s being done week in and week out, Clooney and Frears and the entire cast and crew are free to figure out the best way to tell this story.
As we toured the upstairs of the War Room set, both Harry and I chatted with George and the strangest thing happened. We relaxed. This guy is arguably one of the coolest working movie stars today with iconic roles in OUT OF SIGHT, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and THREE KINGS already in release and projects like O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, THE PERFECT STORM, and OCEAN’S ELEVEN still on the horizon. Yet when you stand there face-to-face with him and you’re just talking about film and upcoming projects and the work we do on the website, none of that matters. He’s just this normal, friendly, intelligent guy who can shut out all the chaos and pressure of the set around him and focus in, making you feel like he really gives a shit about what you’re saying. As a result, he projects less ego than any working actor I’ve ever met. There’s nothing inflated about him. He seems perfectly willing to admit to his own perceived flaws and shortcomings as a performer or a producer, sometimes being harder on himself than anyone else would be. He’s also frank when talking about what went right or wrong on a film. When we discussed THREE KINGS, Clooney mentioned some conflict with director David O. Russell, something that’s not exactly news after some of the cover stories written about the sets. He gives Newton Thomas Sigel, the film’s DP, full credit for being the glue that held the set together during a challenging production. Yet he also gives Russell credit for being “a brilliant writer.” It’s hard to dislike a guy who will tell you straight up that he knows BATMAN & ROBIN is a bad film. “Hey, I got paid. I’ll take my lumps. I’m not going to pretend it was something else,” he said at one point.
The second set we walked onto was also on Stage 15, and it is much smaller than the Omaha. It’s supposed to be a meeting room at the Pentagon. This is where we’ll see cast members like Norman Lloyd, Bill Smitrovich, and Hank Azaria. One of the best little period touches I noticed while walking around was that there are ashtrays everywhere, all of them full of crushed butts. Evidently, since this is set in 1964, you’re going to see everyone smoke constantly in this thing. One, it’s atmospheric, especially in the Pentagon meeting room, where a front projection screen that mirrors the big board will provide the only light in the room for many scenes. Two, it’s accurate. People did smoke like mad in those days, indoors, right on top of one another. There’s a lot of fun period work on the sets. When I flipped through the “Nuclear Readiness Reports” on the desk of the Pentagon set, I was startled to see that the reports were all actually filled with material about nuclear war and our nation’s defense plans in such a case. It’s something you may never see on TV, but it’s there, and it makes the environment that much more real. George and Amy pointed out to us that the horseshoe shaped conference table had sliding panels in it so cameramen could slide them aside, roll out to the middle of the room, shoot a scene, then roll back under the table and hide again. It was at this point that I began to realize… these people are insane. They say that everyone uses certain words to describe this production, words like “bold” or “innovative” or “daring.” What everyone’s really saying, though, is “crazy,” plain and simple. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
George then led us outside, to the digital truck where all of this madness comes together. It is the hub of the production, and one of only three trucks like it. As we made our way into the truck, we met Laura Ziskin, who is producing the show with George. Ziskin’s one of those producers who’s got taste and tenacity, and it was nice to finally meet her and put a face to the name. She was swamped, though, and we just stood back to watch as Stephen Frears worked to block a key moment with John Diehl, an actor who has the misfortune of having stepped into the process late. Miguel Ferrer was originally supposed to appear in the production, but a scheduling issue at the last moment meant that Diehl stepped in after everyone else had already been rehearsing. To his credit, Diehl was on his mark and never missed a beat as we watched. It was the tech end of things that were a little shaky, with the animated map not cueing properly and the sequence of camera shots not playing the way Frears wanted. This is exactly what camera blocking is all about, but the fact that we were there on Sunday, only one week before their air date, was something that was always there, always present, always understood as they wrestled with these problems. As they worked, George asked us if we wanted to see where he’d be in the show. He wanted to show us his plane.
Hey folks, Harry here again. Goddamn that old windbag…. He had that gorgeous beast, Henchman Mongo hit me with a large strange waterpipe, I just recovered and used the dirty stockings of Moriarty to tie him up and away from the computer. It seems he’s been doing a halfway decent job of filling you in with what was happening.
One of the keys though is what Clooney described as being one of the toughest shots of the film. Briefly, let me take you back to the OMAHA WAR ROOM…
Diddly do diddly do diddly do diddly do…
The blurry fog of time travel breaks way to the crystal clarity of Harry-Vision ™. At this distinct history of time, Moriarty, Clooney and I were all in the ‘skybox’ of the Omaha War Room. I was looking out at the back of a commanding Dennehy, as Clooney was talking about how difficult the choreography of the camera movements were to block out, without catching the ‘seams’. These seams could be crew members, cameras… you know the shiny pennies of SOMEWHERE IN TIME. Anyway, he described this one shot at the beginning of the film, where the camera was going to be facing the back area of the ‘skybox’… the antiquated telephone headsets, the old rotarys, all the manuals, ashtrays full up to the brim in old Lucky Strikes…. Clooney says, the audience will figure… ‘oh yeah, a small set,’ then…. The camera turns, and looks out the window of the ‘skybox’, through the window it beholds the giant warroom big board map of war. Positions of planes and locations of enemy locations (when known), the camera procedes out the window, smoothly down 15 or so feet of air, descending into the maelstrom of militaristic activity. Watching to make sure… that in all the reflective substances… the camera never reveals itself. As Clooney is describing this, for a brief instant I think of Tim Allen doing one of his Tool Time talks about the latest super lawn mower… You can see genuine awe in George’s face as he talks about trying camera movements and having it work without flaw.
Diddly do diddly do diddly do diddly do…
From the fog of the past comes the PLANE…
In stark contrast to the previous types of moves… and the size of sets…. Was where Clooney, Cheadle and Grant Heslov (he was the big man’s other friend and associate besides Tom Arnold in TRUE LIES…. Btw when I talked to Grant, he said that he has yet to be approached about the sequel) will be piloting a big ol host of huge fatboy nukes to pepper the Russians with.
Now, while the other sets we were in…. were completely real feeling and complete… Here, they did not build a complete B-17. In fact… they didn’t even build part of a B-17. Clooney basically just had a chunk of real B-17 cut off and brought in. It’s set up atop these air pump thingees that’ll rock the whole big ol baby around. As we approached the HUNK OF PLANE, there were wires and tubes and wiring all over the back of the chunk. Clooney then decided to take us inside the chunk. He hopped in his seat, Moriarty took the navigation seat, and I just didn’t fit in Don Cheadle’s seat. They pushed and pressed and… it was like trying to fit 40 gallons into a 20 ounce Jello mold… it just wasn’t gonna work. I don’t see how they get someone in those seats. I guess this exempts me from flying the nuke to Moscow. So my Russian friends… realize that I could never bomb you.
As I walked around, not very much really… more like step forward, pivot, step back, pivot, step forward and so on. It was amazing really how many gauges and things come in something like this. And basically… for about 2 hours this is the home of C.C.H. (Cheadle, Clooney, Heslov). This will also be Keitel’s bomber towards the end of the film.
Now, one of the questions that I’ve heard is… why would you do this? Why do FAIL SAFE, one of the absolute keystones to the Cold War Paranoia Genre of Film? Why do this in 2000, almost 12 years after the Cold War ended.
Well, at the same time, why make a WWII movie or a film set in Ancient Rome or in a complete Fantasy world. I mean… It’s just not a part of our everyday lives… Right?
TIME magazine really missed the point here. Now, as beautiful as the following may sound, it’s also kind of been oppressively bizarre to me. One day, out of curiousity, I asked my sister (18) if she knew what the CCCP was. She didn’t. Had she heard of the Berlin Wall? Nope. Cuban Missile Crisis? Nada. There is currently an age group of people that have reached sentience after Gorbachev left office, and barely know anything about Yeltsin.
Now, while some of those in the older crowd may not like remembering or revisiting the very real terror that had gripped a world a few short generations ago. I feel subject matters like the House of Un-American activities, the Red Scare, McCarthyisms and the fear of Mushroom Clouds and the Duck & Cover nonsense of an age ago… are excellent ammunition for film and television subject matters.
Now… As for why FAIL SAFE? First, noone friggin remembers the first film. It was instantly overshadowed by Kubrick’s brilliant DR STRANGELOVE which debuted that very same year. The world wanted an icebreaker… a disturbing laugh and cackle at the ‘death from above’, they didn’t want to face the scary reality or fear that came with the territory.
Mutually Assured Destruction. The horror of an eye for an eye. That biblical sacrifice at a scale that us very small humans can’t conceive of thinking about.
After we climbed out of the plane, we headed towards the President’s Bunker. The color schemes were predominantly using shades of green… Green has a great black and white texture to it. As we walk past this desk, I notice this giant SAFE DOOR, Clooney puts his hand on it and says, “Yeah, we borrowed this from Mr Freeze. At least we got something good from that film.” Which reminds me that the painted backdrop with the B-17, “We borrowed this backdrop from THE PERFECT STORM!”
We go through this hall, and into a room with a table, a couple of phones, a speaker device, a door to the side that leads to a bathroom… and that’s about it. This is where Richard Dreyfuss will be President, and Noah Wylie will become the translator. Above everything is this strange kalidescope of concrete beams. Casting perilous shadows… a web that the President is trapped in the middle of. Koybayashi Maru, baby. The ceiling perilously imposing. It’s isolated and scary. The next day we would watch Dreyfuss and Wylie be subjected to this torturous room. So instantly, Moriarty sat in the President’s seat. “NOW I HAVE POWER,” he decreed. Sigh… Evil Geniuses…
Moriarty back again and actually, we prefer “genii,” Knowles, and there are so few of us that it seems silly to pluralize. A few of them who I know of who are roaming free right now are Joel and Ethan Coen. One of the joys of spending three hours walking around with George on Sunday was the ability to talk to him about the other things he’s working on. THE PERFECT STORM (the new trailer for which should be onscreen this Friday attached to READY TO RUMBLE) is something George sounds excited by. For one thing, he is now a big fan of Wolfgang Petersen, both as a filmmaker, and as a person. “He’s a friend,” Clooney said, sounding relieved as much as happy. He admired Wolfgang’s work before this film, but guys who make intense film like DAS BOOT typically have reputations as intense collaborators. Clooney wasn’t sure what to expect from Petersen on a shoot as demanding and difficult as PERFECT STORM. Early press reportage on the film tried to paint it as another WATERWORLD or TITANIC in the making because of the now-notorious difficulty of shooting on water. On the first day they were set to shoot on the gimbel rig on Warner Brothers’ biggest stage, the machine simply wouldn’t work. Instead of losing the day, Petersen just shifted the entire schedule, thinking on his feet, keeping them shooting. When the crew returned to the gimbel stage days later, the system broke again. Once again, Petersen kept moving. As a result, the production never lost a moment of momentum, and they came in under budget and ahead of schedule. There’s no denying it’s a giant film, but it’s the model of how to make these films responsibly.
On the other end of the mainstream scale, there’s the bizarre comedy O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? that Clooney has just finished for Disney. The Coen Bros. are my favorite working filmmakers, and the chance to get a glimpse behind the curtain of their process was too much to resist. George was delighted to tell stories about them, having loved the experience. In fact, he could barely keep a straight face as he thought about the film. He was excited by the way the film’s structure mirrors THE ODYSSEY, having finally reread the Homer original. He also spoke with real affection about the way Joel and Ethan work, about the freedoms they give their actors to find their characters on the set. George was encouraged to contribute the craziest, broadest things possible to the film, trusting that Joel and Ethan would pull him back when things were too broad. He said he used their laugh as the barometer to determine if something was working or not, and when he tried to demonstrate their laugh for us, Harry and I had no choice but to basically collapse. The noise… the noise he made when he did their laughs… how would you describe it, Knowles?
Well, my dear Moriarty, it is akin to the honking of wild geese while migrating south for the winter. Now... by all means continue...
Imagine if Steve McQueen was doing an impression of Robert Carradine in REVENGE OF THE NERDS, with that flat, honking bray erupting from the middle of this movie star mug. It’s dead funny, and if the Coens really do sound like that, I would be useless around them. If they don’t, then they should definitely consider swift and immediate legal action against George for the monumental wrong he’s doing them. He spoke of two great scenes where they pushed him to comic extremes, the first of which involves George taking a shot of moonshine and reacting as it kicks in. We all know the move. Every Three Stooges short had the moment. Every broad physical comic has his particular way of doing it. THREE AMIGOS has a great one with Martin, Chase, and Short all reacting. In this particular case, the Coens told George they wanted him to sound like Popeye when he took the drink. George didn’t know quite how to interpret the request, so asked them to clarify between two different Popeye voices, both of which he did for us. The Coens said it was more the first one. When George takes the shot in the film, he evidently lets out a long raspy Popeye-froggy “ooooooo, corn liquor!” that put Harry and I on the floor, and which was evidently rewarded on set with that unforgettable Coen “HNARK! HNARK!”
The second scene he described to us involved a slap on the back of the head from another character (who I won’t spoil for you). George thought he should have a huge mouthful of food in the scene. Specifically, he thought he should have a huge mouthful of corn in the shot, enjoying the way a spray of corn could look like him spitting up teeth after the blow. He was given another volley of noises from the Coens as a result, then ended up having to spend the next three days with a mouthful of corn.
And before we knew it, the time for that particular afternoon was up. Harry and I had other mischief we had to go cause, and we had to leave. We did walk past what were identified as the AI production offices at one point, and both Harry and I strongly considered getting “lost” while looking for a bathroom. Can you imagine what sort of art is going up in there now? I’m curious. As we walked around, someone pointed at Harry as they went past and let out a “You da man!” We realized that we would have to leave the lot for a while, but we left determined to return the next day. After all, we hadn’t visited Lorenzo yet. We hadn’t seen the rest of the cast. We hadn’t driven Frear’s Mustang at extreme speeds around the abandoned backlot. There was much to do. Another visit was definitely in order.