Thursday, May 3, 2012

DANCING WITH AARON SPELLING (with thanks to Neil Travis)

A while back I made note of the passing of Neil Travis, award winning film editor (Oscar for Dances with Wolves, Emmy for Roots). It was through Neil that I met his assistant, the then very young Geoff Roland who went on to win an Emmy for his film editing of Cagney & Lacey as well as a gaggle of other awards as well. Travis was a very nice man and a terrific film maker and I regret our professional paths only crossed but once (and as if to add insult to injury it was on a pot-boiler of a TV movie we did for David Wolper called Men of the Dragon). Nearly everyone who struggled behind the scenes of that awful film has now passed on and is undoubtedly grateful (as am I) that hell has been all filled up for some time now. There are some wonderful production and post production stories about that terrible film, but I will save them for another time… and perhaps another book which I will definitely commence when every copy, everywhere of Cagney & Lacey… and Me has been sold. Still I did promise at least one Neil Travis yarn so here it is… excised from the aforementioned tome just hours before publication… it referred to an incident that took place during the waning hours of my tenure on Charlie’s Angels:  
Aaron Spelling and I didn’t read the same books, but he was a picture maker with whom I could usually communicate.

I even learned something about him and his style of storytelling. It is different from my own, and perhaps it is a tiny explanation as to why Mr. Spelling became so much richer than I.
I had finished supervising the editing on the episode of Angels that had gotten me “fired” by Leonard Goldberg during the previous week and so was screening it for Aaron alone prior to turning it over to the network as my final obligation to Spelling/Goldberg Productions. The story was one I had lifted from a classic Hitchcock thriller, Foreign Correspondent. It was an atypical episode, in that in the story the Angels were on a holiday given them by Charlie for an earlier job well done. The picture opened with the Angels en route by car to a luxury resort of Charlie’s choosing; Jaclyn Smith was driving and speculating on the possibilities of purchasing a bathing suit once they arrived. Farrah Fawcett was in the front passenger seat voicing concern about the condition of the strings on her tennis racquet. Kate Jackson, “the smart one,” was alone in the rear seat reading a news magazine which featured, as its “Man of the Year,” an internationally prestigious UN diplomat. This world famous statesman was scheduled to speak at the very resort they were going to, and Kate rhapsodized about the possibility of meeting this Kissinger-like persona (expertly portrayed in our story by Theodore Bikel).
The Angels arrived at the resort and Jaclyn went off to buy a bathing suit, while Farrah disappeared to get her racquet restrung, leaving Kate alone in the suite to unpack and to moon over her thoughts of the very worldly “Man of the Year” on the magazine cover. In a melancholy moment she wandered onto her balcony and there, across the way, was that self-same diplomat, surrounded by a coterie of FBI and secret service types. Dismissing them he turned around to see the very beautiful Kate Jackson who reacted with surprise when he saluted her with a friendly wave, but remembered to wave back. With hardly a rearward glance, the aging would be lothario began climbing from his balcony to hers.
They engaged in an interesting and slightly flirtatious conversation; Kate was nervous, but it was Bikel who smoked one cigarette after another.  Finally he had to return before his security people discovered he was gone.  The two agreed to meet again later that evening and he departed by the same multiple balcony route used earlier.

Kate rushed out to the pool area to tell her pals of this incredible adventure, only to find that they didn’t believe her. Jaclyn and Farrah couldn’t imagine what the gag was, but they were convinced Kate was putting them on. Then -- just at that moment -- Bikel, surrounded by his security force, passed by the pool are en route to the Hall where he was to give one of his seminars.

Here was Kate’s opportunity to prove the truth of her story, but to Kate’s chagrin, Bikel didn’t recognize or acknowledge her in any way. Frustrated, she got a bit aggressive, only to find herself restrained by one of the security guys as Bikel moved on, oblivious to her. Kate, pissed as Jaclyn and Farrah teased her unmercifully, stormed off to the suite, barged through the door, and plopped down on the couch. And then she saw it: Bikel’s distinctive cigarette lighter. Proof she wasn’t lying. He was there. 

At this moment a banner appeared on screen: INSERT MISSING, it read.
I leaned over to Spelling in the darkened projection room: 
"Oh, this point we’re going to pick up a close shot of the lighter on the table. Kate’s hand will come into the frame and grab it. The camera will tilt up to her face as she ignites the lighter and says ‘He was here’…or something like that.”
“Good idea,” said Spelling. The picture continued and so did he: “While you’re at it, get another insert shot of the lighter being left on the table...y’know, in the earlier scene...with Bikel when he is talking to Kate.”
The screening went on. Aaron would make an occasional comment and periodically give a note. The episode was a good one, and at the end he said so. He was pleased.

“Aaron,” I said, “we’ll accomplish all your notes right away, of course, but there’s one I’d like to talk to you about.” 
“Yes,” Aaron said, looking at me, his all but erstwhile employee, as if the flunky he was staring at might never learn his place.
As meekly as I could, I took issue with “tipping” the entire moment in the “discovery” scene by calling the audience’s attention to---and making a point of---Bikel’s leaving of the lighter. It was a “red-flag,” I said, calling attention to itself. It would damage the scene between Bikel and Jackson and destroy the suspense of the following two scenes with Jaclyn and Farrah since the audience would no longer wonder how Kate could vindicate herself…They would know. I pleaded for a moment of audience revelation through the actions of a principal. I used several examples of classic motion picture editing techniques to back my theory. I talked of good picture making, “motivated” camera moves and cutting concepts. It was all for naught. Spelling wanted the insert and I would have to give it to him.
That night I was at a party and was mid-way through my second martini as I related this story to a friend of mine, award-winning film editor, Neil Travis. 

“Can you believe that (expletive) is making me put in that (expletive) insert?"  I all but screeched.

“Can you imagine how he’d cut the scene of Scarlett’s return to Twelve Oaks?!” (This last Gone With The Wind reference being a classic example of revelation through the eyes of a principal---The audience does not see the devastation of this beautiful plantation until after Scarlett O’Hara. The viewer therefore emphatically shares her horror instead of seeing it first and waiting to see how she will react. One way involves the audience directly; the other keeps them outside of the emotional plane of the characters.)

“Barney, don’t you get it?” My film editor-pal said very calmly. “Haven’t you ever taken your kids to a children’s theatrical production?”

I asked what he meant. Neil Travis began, speaking slowly, pedagogically.

“The villain comes on the stage. He approaches the apron and talks to the audience:  ‘Heh, heh, heh, I have the magic lighter and I'm going to hide it where innocent little Kate will never find it.  Heh, heh, heh...I think i'll put it in this tree branch...she'll never look there'"
Neil had done a pretty fair imitation of a caped and mustachioed Alan Mowbray in The Villain Still Pursued Her. His voice then changed to a falsetto, indicating the entrance on stage of the heroine:

“‘Oh where, oh where will I ever… ever… find the magic lighter? It is the only way I can possibly save my family honor...’ 

‘It’s in the tree! It’s in the tree!’ shouts every kid in the audience. They jump up and down in their seats, the leading lady acts as if she can’t hear. ‘It’s in the tree!’ they scream again.” 
Neil Travis smiled, paused for effect, then: 

“That’s what Aaron likes. That’s what he does---children’s theatre.”

I got it. I don’t like it as much as theatre for grownups, but it certainly is a legitimate form, and who is to argue with Aaron Spelling’s obvious grasp of just what it was America wanted for its television entertainment? And, lest it be forgotten, there is no question that more people saw the eleven episodes of Charlie’s Angels I made for Spelling and Goldberg than would view an entire two season’s work of mine on Cagney & Lacey.
Neil was right.  I thank him for that lesson, for Geoff Roland and for so much

Barney Rosenzweig
May 3, 2012 


Paul K. Bisson said...

Great story! Thanks, Barney.

Nadine Meeker said...

As a writer (more your style than Aaron's by the way), this was an entertaining story that hit exactly on what Aaron did well. But yeah, I agree with you, we need 'drama' too now and then (thank you, and TPTB, for C&L)!