Normalt sett när jag bestämt mig för en temavecka så har jag först gjort klart med en person som ska intervjuas till den, vare sig det är temaveckans huvudperson (som i fallen med Sam Firstenberg och Luigi Cozzi) eller någon annan som på något sätt är kopplad till temaveckan (Andrew Leavold, Robert Reneau, Josiah Howard). Den här gången blev det inte så utan jag bestämde mig direkt för att under årets Black History Month hedra Sidney Poitier med sin egen temavecka.
Jag stod därför inför ett dilemma: Vem skulle jag intervjua? Karln själv, då 90 år fyllda, kunde jag tyvärr räkna bort. Jag funderade och funderade medan tiden började rinna ut. Jag kom till slut på en som hade varit perfekt att intervjua och gjorde vad jänkarna kallar för en hail mary och skickade ett brev på ren chansning, bära eller brista. Ett knappt dygn senare fick jag ett snällt svar tillbaka där min begäran om en intervju entusiastiskt beviljades.
Mannen jag kontaktade var Roger Spottiswoode, som regisserade Poitier i filmen Shoot to Kill. Andra filmer han regisserat är bland annat Turner & Hooch med Tom Hanks, Air America med Mel Gibson och Robert Downey Jr., Stopp! Annars Skjuter Morsan Skarpt med Sylvester Stallone, 6th Day med Arnold Schwarzenegger och inte minst Bondfilmen Tomorrow Never Dies med Pierce Brosnan. Det är inte varje dag man intervjuar en regissör vars meritlista gett mig otaliga timmars underhållning från att jag var sex år gammal (första gången jag såg Stopp! Annars Skjuter Morsan Skarpt) fram tills nu.
Eftersom det är till Sidney Poitiers temavecka jag intervjuat honom är det filmen Shoot to Kill samt hur det var att jobba med honom som fokus lagts på den här gången. Men vem vet, kanske kommer det en Temavecka Roger Spottiswoode någon gång i framtiden, med en mer karriäromfattande intervju? Den som lever får se. Nu till intervjun!
How did you get the job of directing Shoot to Kill?
I think it must have been through the kind suggestion of Dan Petrie to Jeffrey Katzenberg that got my name onto the list of directors. I really liked the script, although I think I would have worked with Sidney whatever the script had been, he was a childhood hero. Growing up in England, I was in a home where mainly European films were seen, except for some special exceptions. Cassavetes, and a few other film makers, and anything Sidney or Paul Newman was in.
I'm sure most directors would love to get the chance to work with Sidney Poitier. That said, despite being an established director at that point in your career, was it intimidating to direct someone of his stature?
I’m sure I must have been a little intimidated, but meeting him in person one quickly discovers he is the most engaging and fascinating person, just as one had imagined and I quickly forgot to be intimidated.
One thing I find very interesting about Shoot to Kill is that it marked his return in front of the camera after an 11 year absence. Do you know what it was about the project that made him return to acting after being away so long?
I’ll tell you a rather long story that answers this question, but I think you will probably need to trim it down. We filmed in Canada, in the foothills of the rockies. Wonderful locations, very steep, dramatic country. About halfway through the schedule we came to a scene that had taken an immense amount of preparation. Sidney’s character was following Tom Berenger’s mountain man up a steep, in fact it was vertical ’chimney’. This was a slight indentation in a vertical rockface, which was possible but difficult to climb 200 feet below where they climbed was a glacier. Access to this rockface was only by helicopter and we had to build landing platforms for the choppers which ferried the crew and the gear necessary to put the actors safely on the rockface.
This was before the advent of CGI. When the filming day arrived, the cameraman and I went down on ropes to about fifty feet below the top, and we set the camera position and made sure all the attachments and wire arrangements that would secure Sidney regardless of whether he held on or not and we checked everything was prepared and safe. As we were doing this, one of the helicopters flew in and the 1st AD radio’d down to us that ”Sidney had arrived’ and was ready for camera. I replied, ”Great wire him up and send him down.” That meant he would be put into a safety harness hidden inside his clothing, a safety wire was attached and he would climb down the ladder we had built into the rockface, hidden from the camera.
The camera operator and I were both hanging from wires, and we waited for Sidney to appear coming down the rock face towards us. And we waited some more. 5 minutes went by, then ten. I radio'd up, ”What’s happening?” ”I think you’d better come up” was the reply. This was something of a performance of course, it meant getting off the wire, onto the ladder, then re-wiring again for the climb up. Anyway, five minutes later I climbed over the edge and saw Sidney sitting on a large flat rock, not far from the helicopter and some way back from the precipitous edge. He was sitting quietly, alone. So I went over and sat down beside him. We both stared at the mountains for a while. Eventually, he spoke up, in his usual calm, quiet voice. He said,
- ”You know when Jeffrey sent me this script, I really liked it a lot. A very good story set in a beautiful place. But I also knew that it would be impossible to actually film it in the mountains, it was all too difficult to do in the real mountains, in the actual Rockies. so the big vistas would be done by a 2nd unit, and we would be shooting in Los Angeles, right at the studio, on sets. Just down the road from my home. Because no one in their right mind would come out here with a film crew... No one! And that thing there... (He pointed over his shoulder to the helicopter) That thing which I had never been in before today, and will never go in again after I get off this mountain... would be no part of my Life. So I’m not going down the rockface, I’m not even going to go over and stand on the edge... We’re going to shoot this on the stage like regular people."
And that’s what we did, just those few shots of Sidney on the rockface. Everything we done in those mountains. So Anders, there you have it. That’s the story Sidney told me, and I tend to believe what he says. He took the film because it meant shooting close to home and he liked the script.
Being a director himself, did you feel he was more hands-on in the making of the movie compared to other actors who doesn't have that experience being behind the camera provides? Did his experience as a director make it more difficult or easier for you to give him directions?
Being a director himself makes Sidney a particularly thoughtful and helpful person on the set. For the director, he knows exactly what you are dealing with and how to make your life as easy and pleasant as possible. Sidney is wonderfully prepared, gracious and thoughtful to his fellow actors. He does everything he can to make life easier for the director.
I think the chemistry between the two leading men, Sidney and Tom Berenger was great in the movie, they worked really great off each other. Did they seem get along well when the cameras weren't rolling?
Yes they got on fine and I think their differences helped the story. Tom is rather from the ’in the moment’ school of acting, while Sidney is very well prepared and very good at adapting his performance to work for the camera. I think the only difficulty Sidney had was when his Big City character had to seem out of place in the wilderness of the rockies. Sidney has an extraordinary grace and ease however difficult the terrain (except when helicopers are involved) so trying to look clumsy required extra attention.
Sidney got to play the fish-out-of-water for most of its running time. Granted, he was no stranger to comedy, but were you surprised just how well he pulled off the comedy bits where he acted like a buffoon for many of the scenes? I mean few other actors possess gravitas the way Sidney does.
He was delightful in this respect, particularly when it came to working with moose and the bear. a full grown grizzly. We had the bear specially trained for the scene and the Italian trainer and bear had some six weeks of preparation. After filming was complete that day, I asked the Italian trainer how he had prepared his bear to chase Sidney up the hill towards the cameras. ”How did I train him?” he replied… ”You can’t train a grizzly for that, there’s only one way he does it… He was very, very hungry. I not feed him for a couple of weeks before the shoot.”
Berenger on the other hand played the tough, no-nonsense character with no time for buffoonery. He often plays these very tough guys, does he just happen to play them well or do they reflect parts of his actual personality?
I think those characters appeal to him.
Then there's the character of Sarah, who is kidnapped by the killer and played by Kirstie Alley. What was she like to work with?
Kirstie was very good company, she was always fun on the set, she loved the mountains, her husband was along, she didn’t have a whole lot to do, she was in great spirits.
The movie does a good job keeping the audience guessing who the killer is. Was it a deliberate choice to have known bad guy actors such as Clancy Brown and Andrew Robinson a part of the cast, while leaving open the possibility it could be one of the harmless looking guys?
Absolutely. And of course Clancy Brown was convincingly innocent, while Richard Masur, Andie and Kevin did their best to suggest they might be the killer.
It looks to have been a pretty hard movie to direct, with so much of it being shot on location in the wilderness in your neck of the woods, Canada. Would you say it was?
Do difficult locations make a film harder... not so much, I think. It may be a struggle to find remote locations and to get the crew and cast to them, but when it comes to the actual filming, there are huge benefits, everything works better. The cast understands the story better, they see how their characters would be affected by their surroundings... everything makes for a deeper good sense. Adversity also encourages collaboration. Many of our locations had no road access at all. Everything had to be hand carried across rivers, hills or Mountains. We had a rule that no one could get on or off those locations without carrying equipment. It was amazing how few were the complaints.
The actors sure seemed to have fun playing their parts. Was it a happy shoot?
Yes, a very happy shoot. Sidney of course is a charming and fascinating person, crew and cast were in love with him. In spite of expecting a studio film, he quickly adapted and loved the Mountains... so long as helicopters and vertical cliffs were not involved. Or bears... For very good reasons he had great respect for large grizzleys. When we prepared the scene where he and Tom almost literally bump into the grizzly, I remember explaining to Sidney how the scene would work, which direction he should run - up hill – and that it was important for him to check behind him as he ran up through the tall grass towards the four cameras in the distance. And Sidney asked me a question (with a bit of a smile because he was asking a Tom kind of question about motivation…)
- ”Why exactly am I looking back, Roger? What’s the motivation?”
- ”Two motivations, Sidney. The first is that being an FBI guy out in the mountains the first time, you’re not sure how fast grizzlies can run up hill... so you need to look back and check how the grizzly is doing. And the Second motivation is for Sidney Poitier, the person, Sidney an actor in the film, trying to stay ahead of a grizzly. You Sidney, and as a matter of fact, me the director we also don’t know how fast this grizzly can go up hill. And that’s because we don’t know how fast it will go at all. We haven’t seen it run. Apparently it doesn't much like running. It’s kind of lazy. The trainer says he thinks the hill will slow him down, ’Quite a bit’, whatever that means. But personally, as the director, I’d sure be a lot happier if while you’re running you check back over your shoulder to see whether the trainer’s right about the bear not being great on an uphill slope. And by the way, we’ve had a team of local workers going over this ground and getting rid of all the rocks and stones that might trip you up, and they tell me it’s all clear.”
And of course, I knew as I said that, the phrase itself, ”All Clear" had a bad reputation for inaccuracies. After all the usual delays, and checking that the bear had seen the little string that pretended to be an electric fence, we finally got all the cameras running. The bear stood around looking slightly irritable, and I called action, and Tom and Sidney started running. I must say, Sidney was always rather fleet of foot. I believe he plays a lot of tennis. And today he was quicker than ever, getting an early start ahead of Tom. But the bear, as it was released by the trainer took off like a rocket!!!! After 50 yards Sidney was still in the lead, but not by so much, and it was at this fateful moment that he looked back, as suggested by myself, the ’director’. And yes the bear was gaining on him, getting rather close... but just as he looked forward again and tried to speed up, his foot hit that one rock that had not been moved... and Sidney went flying. He hit the ground hard and in an instant the grizzly was standing over him all four paws surrounding his body.
Tom was there less than a second later and immediately sharted shouting, yelling, waving the gun he was holding, distracting the bear from the meal at his feet. The crew was rushing over, also yelling and shouting, the bear was momentarily distracted and then the trainer arrived with the biggest raw steak I’d ever seen which he offered to the bear. The bear gave Sidney a last look, shrugged at us, swiped the steak away from the trainer and ambled off with his meal. We helped Sidney to his feet. I apologised profusely and wondered if he would ever forgive me. Sidney was very understanding but a little shaken up. I’m not so sure his wife Joanna ever did. Yes a happy shoot, and at times quite unusual.
Roughly how long did it take to shoot the movie and did you feel you had a large enough budget to make the movie as it was scripted?
When Disney decides to make a film, they do know how to do it well. Their production department was always very good and both the budget and schedule were fine. We did have to build the shear rockface that Sidney could not face climbing down. And as I suspected it was almost as tall as the real one because of the rear projection and lights. But it was on a stage and looked just as good as the real one.
Since it was Sidneys return to the big screen after such a long time, did the marketing department highlight that when promoting the movie?
I expect they did, I don’t really recall. We were all rather sideswiped by the sudden change of title that marketing insisted on. The script had been named, ’In the Halls of the Mountain King', and after working in those ’Halls’ for six months, the title seemed beautifully appropriate. While the new title which the publicity people favored was Shoot to Kill and it felt rather ugly, inappropriate and not the film we had made at all.
What were your thoughts on the movie after having seen it for the first time in its entirety and has your opinion changed on it over the years?
Like many of my films, after working intensely on them for a couple of years and seeing them endlessly during post production, I seldom see them again. I will take a look for the first time, after I send this off to you.
Do you remember what Sidney had to say about it, was he pleased?
I do think he’s pleased with it. We’ve spoken a number of times over the years, it was a memorable experience. And for all of us, beyond the stunning mountains and amazing world we lived in for those months, working with Sidney was the very best part of it.
What about the critics, how was it received upon its release?
I think they were OK but not glorious. It’s not their kind of film. And the new title proved damaging, it put a lot of people off the film.
Lastly, what can you tell us about Sidney Poitier, the man, and what is your favorite memory of working with him?
Near the end of the shoot we were filming in Vancouver. One day we had a scene with a character who appeared in only one scene, a scene that would take a day to film. When we got to the set to rehearse the scene, before lighting began, I introduced Michael (MacRae) to Sidney. As we started to read through the scene we quickly discovered that Michael had been sent the wrong draft of the script by mistake. It was a simple production error but it meant that Michael had learnt a four page scene which was completely different from the one we were shooting. ”I have to go learn this new one, before I can rehearse,” he said.
Sidney immediately suggested we should help Michael learn the lines by reading together. So we sat in a motorhome and started reading the new version of the scene. In one of these new lines, there was a reference to ’a meeting in Robson Square’, a well known square in Vancouver. Each time we would come to this particular line in the script, Michael would misread the line and say, ”We are going to meet in Robeson square.” He pronounced the name of the square as if it was the name of the famous American singer, Paul Robeson (with a long ’o’, not the short ’o’ in Robson.)
The first time Michael did this, Sidney very politely stopped him and coreccted him… ”Robson, not Robeson.” Michael thanked him for the correction and we finished the scene before starting again. The second time, and Michael instinctively made the wrong pronounciation again... He was used to the name of Paul Robson and its pronounciation, while this square in Vancouver and its pronounciation, was unknown to him. Sidney stopped him again, very politely. He gave Michael the correct reading and we finished the scene. We had a cup of coffee and then read the scene a third time.
Once more, Michael, poor fellow, made the same small but grave error. Very firmly this time, Sidney said ”Stop”. You cannot confuse the name of one of the truly Great Americans, with a square in Vancouver. You just must not! There was a little pause and then Sidney lit up with that great smile, ”Let me tell you a little about Paul Robeson... What a man!... ” And for the next hour or so, Sidney seemed to be once more the young man full of love and enthusiasm who month after month had started his days in a Deli with his pal Harry (Belafonte), and talked to this wonderful celebrated athlete, actor, singer, civil rights activist who had become their friend and mentor. And when the stories ended, Sidney stay quietly for a moment and then became again the older person we were working with. He looked at both of us and said, ”Lets try the scene again, shall we?” Michael pronounced Robson the right way and it was the most fascinating hour I spent on the film. I suspect Michael remembers it as well.
On the last Sunday during production, I went looking to find a small gift with which to thank Sidney for his kind and generous collaboration. I wandered through a number of second hand book stores, all of them empty on this rainy Vancouver day. The last one was also the largest. It seemed cavernous, and I was rather lost not even certain where to be looking. The owner saw my uncertainty and came over to chat, and I explained I was looking for a gift for someone, and eveentually it came out, in fact the owner guessed, who the gift was to be for. He looked at me quizzically, then said, ”D’you know I’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Come with me...” He led me over to a door with record labels on it and explained, ”We also sell old records, we have just the one room, but they’re all rather special.” We went in and he went straight to a shelf which was behind a locked glass partion. He unlocked the glass and took down an unopened box-set of 78s - by Paul Robeson: The Ballads.
A big thank you to Roger Spottiswoode for these invaluable stories about the making of Shoot to Kill and his memories of Sidney Poitier!