Story of the Scene: 'Say it again, Bobby' and other greats
The Independent's Story of the Scene column has now been turned into a book. In these exclusive extracts, Roger Clarke gives the inside scoop on the famous sequences from seven classic movies
Friday 25 September 2009
Taxi Driver - 1976
"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well I'm the only one here. Who do you think you're talking to? Oh yeah? Huh? OK."
Travis Bickle is practising with his guns in front of a mirror in one of the most-quoted scenes in modern cinema. The film is Taxi Driver; the actor is Robert De Niro. One of the last scenes to be shot, why was this famous dialogue improvised by De Niro? The film's story is simple enough. It's a mood piece, a love-hate letter to New York in the era of 1970s urban decay and Checker cabs. De Niro plays the alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, who drives a taxi for a living. Scriptwriter Paul Schrader based his character on the case of Arthur Bremer, who had tried to assassinate presidential candidate George Wallace. Martin Scorsese's follow-up film was to be The King of Comedy – perhaps an exorcism of the information that John Hinckley Jr had become obsessed with Taxi Driver prior to his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan (the film is about a stalker). Travis Bickle's name is an homage to Malcolm McDowell's character in If..., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, variously a schoolboy, coffee salesman and reporter.
Paul Schrader, an ex-critic turned top-dollar screenwriter, was a protégé of Brian de Palma, for whom he had written the semi-autobiographical Taxi Driver (drawing on his LA experience of a nervous breakdown). With De Palma's blessing, Scorsese took over the script with De Niro in the lead. Despite De Niro's recent The Godfather II Oscar win, the Hollywood establishment made clear its antipathy for the film at an early stage – the budget was hard to raise at a paltry $1.3m.
In this last scene, Travis Bickle is enraged by the spectacle of Jodie Foster as an underage child prostitute, and decides to arm himself with a small arsenal of handguns and ride to her rescue. In the famous mirror scene here he is, stripped to the waist, practising his moves.
The mixture of jump-cuts, reverse angles and 180-degree swish pans makes it hard to differentiate the man from his mirror image.
And the reason Bickle keeps repeating the line "Are you talkin' to me"? According to one critic, this was a borrowed line from a stand-up comic. But the real reason? If the camera had panned down you would have seen Scorsese himself lying on the floor, mere inches from the actor, wearing headphones, mouthing to De Niro "say it again" out of earshot – worried that the street noise from bustling New York was ruining the take.
The Shining - 1980
Jack Nicholson axing down the door and shouting "Here's Johnny!" was voted the number one scariest film moment in a 2003 UK poll. The line was ad-libbed and the terror and exhaustion you see on the face of Shelley Duvall is genuine. Warner executive, John Calley, had liked the original Stephen King horror novel. Kubrick thought little of King as a prose stylist, but when sent a copy of the book by Calley he was intrigued by its genre inventiveness. Though King had actually written a script for The Shining, Kubrick refused to read it. King also opposed Jack Nicholson's casting, but Kubrick had been looking to find a role for him since 1969. In consequence of these slights, the author's dislike of the film has remained implacable.
The exterior of the Overlook Hotel was shot outside the Timberline Lodge, near Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. Kubrick refused to travel from his UK home to make the movie, so the interiors were constructed at Elstree studios, using four of their nine stages. Elstree had to juggle its production with Flash Gordon and The Empire Strikes Back.
The most striking technical aspect of the film was the novel use of Steadicam, its inventor Garrett Brown filming the famous gliding shots. Kubrick's lighting obsession was just one of many pressures on his actors: the 500,000 watts of luminescence generated temperatures of 110 degrees. Kubrick would characteristically reshoot a scene as many as 80 times and rewrote the script almost every day. Shelley Duvall – a Robert Altman discovery – was Kubrick's first and only choice for the character Wendy Torrance. Five-and-a-half-year-old Danny Lloyd was cast as her son after an exhaustive casting process lasting six months and conducted in the US by Kubrick's trusted disciple Leon Vitali. Kubrick sat at home in St Albans, watching the tapes that Vitali sent over. Danny, who according to Kubrick never knew he was in a horror movie, grew up to be a biology teacher. Kubrick's frequent verbal assaults on Shelley Duvall are said to be responsible for her nervous, harried look. That poster image of Duvall's face and Nicholson's demonic grimace always evokes Nicholson's ad-libbed line, "Here's Johnny!" Where did it come from? It was a reference to the classic introduction used by Ed McMahon when he ushered Johnny Carson on to The Tonight Show.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - 2002
At the time, Andy Serkis (the actor who portrays the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) thought he was going to New Zealand for three weeks of voice-over work on The Two Towers. But not long after his arrival he was on location, pioneering a completely new form of technology, in a freezing rock pool.
The scene where Gollum catches fish in the "Forbidden Pool" is a great favourite for YouTube mash-ups – maybe it's his crooning little song, maybe it's the chomping on the raw fish. "The Forbidden Pool," he sings, "is nice and cool."
Gollum, or Sméagol, is deformed by his long possession of the malign magical ring now in the hands of Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood. He is playing along with Baggins for now, hoping to seize the ring back in an unguarded moment. He cuts a disgusting figure, with greyish, almost translucent skin, strands of hair drawn across his skull-like head, a sibilant way of talking and a reptilian way of moving.
The Gollum glimpsed in the original film is completely different from the one we see in The Two Towers; this Gollum was thrust into being when director Peter Jackson decided to use Serkis's own physicality to drive the character. Jackson's Weta digital company as good as went back to the drawing board, binning years of work, to get the results you see in this scene.
The main technique was motion-capture, for which Serkis donned a skin-tight suit covered in dots. Another innovative post-production method included something called "subsurface scattering", which allowed for the newt-like translucence of Gollum's flesh.
Gollum was ultimately modelled into a plasticine maquette or smallscale model. According to the "creature supervisor" Eric Sainden, the maquette had "300 muscles or more" and a full skeleton. More than 250 facial shapes were captured to manipulate his expressions.
Serkis modelled the Sméagol/Gollum voice on, he later said, the sound of a cat coughing up a hairball. Lacerating his vocal chords in the process, he was obliged to drink a special formulation laced with honey, just to keep his voice operational. Another source for the Gollum manner, according to Serkis, was the craving, wheedling manner of someone going through heroin withdrawal. His own family members were also thrown into the mix – including his father and his two-year-old son.
Serkis did a fair amount of work in studio, but this trip to the rock pool was one of his relatively rare stints of onscreen, live acting. An early morning shoot revealed a ground covered in snow and ice; all of this had to be removed before filming started.
Serkis, wearing virtually nothing, dipped in and out of the pool as his character tries to catch a fish. Nice and cool? In fact it was freezing. And a long way from the nice warm studios where Serkis had expected to be doing his voice-over work.
The Matrix Reloaded - 2003
There's nothing like a good car chase. One of the most lavish was designed by the Wachowski brothers for their sequel to The Matrix.
Filming their two follow-ups back-to-back, it was The Matrix Reloaded, rather than the final damp squib Matrix Revolutions, that contained their no-holds-barred, burning-rubber, fender-bending state-of-the-art car chase. It's never really been equalled. It took 45 days to film for a breathless 14 minutes of onscreen time, and it made use of a massive San Francisco set that was later re-used in a most unexpected manner.
Initially, a stretch of road (Route 59) in Akron, Ohio, was considered for the scene, but the practical problems of using a real road posed almost insurmountable challenges. Instead the Wachowskis built, from scratch, and at a cost of $2.5m, a fake freeway on a disused naval base at Alameda in California, which had been decommissioned in 1997.
The entire mile-and-a-half road was fenced with a 19ft wall actually made from timber and plywood; the two overpasses were made to look like concrete.
The sequence is spectacular. There are new and old villains pursuing our heroes, wraith-like dreadlocked entities wielding cut-throat razors and guns, robotic secret-service types spraying the speeding Cadillac with bullets as it weaves to avoid them, Carrie-Anne Moss delivering motorcycle accelerations way beyond human ken and physical ability, cars rolling and cartwheeling into terrifying crashes, and good old Laurence Fishburne deploying some slick Taekwondo moves and samurai-sword balletics on top of a speeding rig.
The sequence is especially beloved by Matrix nerds keen on the arcane significance of various road signs and truck signs you see along the way, including logos referring to Gulliver's Travels, the oft-repeating numeral 101 and an exit signboard to Paterson Pass, which is allegedly a reference to the production designer, Owen Paterson.
General Motors donated well over 100 cars for the scene, all of which were trashed. Intriguingly, many of the moments which look like CGI are not: when Agent Johnson spectacularly jumps on the bonnet of a speeding car and crushes it, it is in fact a real-time stunt with the car designed to buckle and roll.
Many people could film an entire movie in 45 days with $2.5m, but the Wachowski brothers wanted to pull off a spectacular. Matrix Reloaded eventually proved the greatest financial success of the trilogy.
And the fabricated freeway? Its 10,000 tons of timber were carefully dismantled and sent to Mexico, where the wood was used for the construction of a 100 low-income homes by a charitable organisation called The ReUse People. All that fictional mayhem proved one of the most socially responsible pieces of filmmaking in recent years.
The male rape scene in Deliverance has passed into a kind of legendary place, something to be spoken of in hushed tones. After filming it, actor Ned Beatty found himself an unwilling spokesperson for male rape. Burt Reynolds didn't help matters by insisting that the supposed penetration had actually taken place. And in a curious aside, Stanley Kubrick developed an unhealthy obsession with the actor who utters the immortal line, "squeal like a pig".
Director John Boorman tells his experience of the shoot. "We shot by the edge of the river for three days in a laurel grove; it was about an hour from the hotel in a four-wheel-drive vehicle." He'd liked the "lime-green" effect of the leaves, and the twisted branches and carpet of dead leaves on the forest floor all added to the air of menace. This is where the hillbillies finally get to capture the rafting party in a backwater zone; Jon Voight is tied to a laurel tree by the throat as Bill McKinney orders Ned Beatty to strip and the rape takes place.
In the original script, Boorman had written in a string of obscenities, "but Warners wanted us to shoot coverage for TV as well".
Boorman's writing partner Rospo Pallenberg came up with the line just days beforehand, and Boorman liked it so much he kept it in the shooting script. Burt Reynolds in his autobiography described how the two actors got into the role so thoroughly that "Bill McKinney was actually penetrating poor Ned" and he had to go in and drag him off! It was completely untrue, of course.
It was the beginning of an unpleasant journey for Ned Beatty, a stage actor in his very first film role. "He actually felt he had been raped," recalls Boorman. In 1989, Beatty wrote a heartfelt editorial for The New York Times in which he revealed he had been stigmatised for 20 years as a result of the scene; strangers still call out "squeal like a pig" to him on the streets.
Boorman does tell one very funny story about the film, and he's not revealed it before. "When Stanley Kubrick was casting for Full Metal Jacket he wanted Bill McKinney to play the Drill Sergeant. Kubrick phoned me up and said, 'What's Bill McKinney like?' And I said he's a very good actor and a lovely guy. And Kubrick said [adopting a sceptical tone] 'Come on now – that's the most terrifying scene ever put on film and that guy has gotta be an awful person.' He phoned me two or three times about Bill McKinney and eventually offered him the part. Bill told me later that he was in the LA airport about to come to London and he got a message from Kubrick to cancel. He was paid in full but Kubrick couldn't bear to face him – he was just too afraid!"
When Harry Met Sally... - 1989
Some restaurants have fared well from associations with famous movie scenes, but none more so than Katz's famous Jewish Deli at 205 East Houston St on the Lower East Side of New York City. It's where Meg Ryan conducted her much celebrated "fake orgasm" scene in front of a bemused Billy Crystal.
Katz's Deli was founded in 1888 and found a ready consumer base for Russian immigrants; its moniker "send a salami to your boy in the army" became famous in the Second World War. Now you can sit under a round sign hanging from the ceiling which reads (using the same signage and graphics, which may or may not be significant) "Where Harry Met Sally – Hope You Have What She Had – Enjoy!"
During the Katz Deli scene Meg Ryan is determined to prove to Billy Crystal that women are adept at faking orgasms, and proceeds, fully clothed and still at the dining table, to give a long and elaborate rendition of her theory.
By all accounts Meg Ryan managed to reshoot the scene for many hours as director Rob Reiner meticulously pushed for the perfect take. The original script had not actually included this theatre of engorgement – it was to be discussion only, with no practical demonstrations. Meg Ryan herself pushed for the idea, and Reiner liked it so much he wrote it into subsequent drafts.
Most people remember not just the Meg Ryan theatrics but also the funny line that ends them – offstage as it were. Just who is that demure middle-aged woman with the greying hair and the somewhat unsightly brown woollen top who tells the waiter, "I'll have what she's having!" when Meg Ryan finishes her howling, thereby virtually silencing the entire restaurant. Step forward Estelle Reiner – the entirely respectable mother of the director.
Singin' in the Rain - 1952
It's the best-known of all the Gene Kelly numbers: he tap-dances his way through a catchy song, splashing in puddles, swinging from lamp-posts and wielding his umbrella to emphasise his nimble choreography. He had a fever of 103° at the time.
The song was taken from The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and the scene was to have been a trio with his co-star Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor (two actors he famously terrorised – at one point Debbie Reynolds was found weeping under a piano by Fred Astaire, who then offered to teach her how to dance). The original idea can still be seen in the opening credits of the film, but Singin' in the Rain was destined to become Gene Kelly's calling card.
The film was made at the studios at Culver City in western Los Angeles, and two permanent streets were plumbed up for this particular scene. A complex system of pipes was used to create the rainfall, and special puddles made to key in to Kelly's choreography.
Milk was mixed with the water to make it more visible to the cameras, and tarpaulin was used to shade the streets. From the word go the shoots were arduous and long – sometimes up to 19 hours a day – and shooting had to be arranged around the sudden water shortages that arrived every day at 2 o'clock. The reason for the sudden afternoon droughts? Two o'clock was when the local residents at nearby Beverly Hills turned on their lawn sprinklers.
Days of water-logged rehearsals took their toll on Kelly's health, and he developed a raging fever at the time the scene was shot. His fine grey suit had also shrunk badly from all the dousings, partly restricting his movements. All the same he succeeded in "becoming a kid again" for the purposes of the dance – emphasised by the disapproving looks of a roving policeman played by Robert Williams (an extra and bit-part player all his life) which finally stop his antics.
It's said that Kelly was so enraged by the scene's subversion in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, for an especially violent rape scene, he ostentatiously snubbed actor Malcolm McDowell at a Hollywood gathering. It had been McDowell's idea to use the song in the first place, and Kubrick had liked the idea.
Extracted from Story of the Scene: The Inside Scoop on Famous Moments in Film by Roger Clarke, published by Methuen Drama on 7 October (£14.99)
Independent readers can order copies for just £11.99 with free UK p&p (£3 overseas), by calling Macmillan Distribution on 01256 302699 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, quoting offer code GLR 3DW and ISBN 9781408109878
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