Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A bag of charcoal for BARABBAS

by Richard Fleischer

Before the picture was over there was another example of the crew's near-perfect efficiency. We were in Sicily, near the top of Mount Etna, with five hundred extras dressed as Roman slaves. Getting five hundred extras, plus the crew and tons of equipment, up there was no easy task. We had to shoot the sequence on a Sunday, since that was the only day we could get that many people from Catania, a two-hour, twisty, mountain drive from the top.
When we got there, the weather was terrible. Heavy overcast, with black clouds covering the black volcanic cinder surface. There was no definition between the sky and the ground. It was black on black with not enough light even to get an exposure. I had no choice but to wait it out. If the weather didn't break, and it sure didn't look like it would, it would be a very expensive shooting day down the drain, and we'd have to wait another week to try it again.
All I needed was one shot, but it was quite a shot. It would start on a long line of slaves snaking back to the horizon (if you could see the horizon), moving slowly toward the camera. We pan past the line and end up close on Tony Quinn and Vittorio Gassman, who are going to be chained together at the ankles. The camera tracks past them and zooms in on a white-hot, fiery, charcoal brazier and we see a pair of tongs pluck a rivet from the charcoal and then see it used to link the two loose ankle chains together.
I rehearsed the shot until it was mechanically perfect. If the sun ever did break through, I wanted to be able to shoot it without any foul-ups. The only part I hadn't rehearsed was the actual riveting of the chains. I decided we should try that, too, even though we had a professional blacksmith to do the job when it came time to shoot. That was when we made a terrible discovery. They had forgotten to bring the charcoal!
Two propmen took off in a car at breakneck speed down the treacherous mountain road back to Catania. It was Sunday, everything would be closed, but they'd do their best. I called lunch.
Lunch came and went. I rehearsed some more, our eyes scanning the mountain road, looking for some sign of the car. We watched the sky, too. No break there. It was a solid as ever. I was dying.
It was approaching the time of day when, clouds or not, it would be too late to shoot, when someone shouted, "Here they come!" Sure enough, it was our car racing up the mountain. I looked at the sky. Unbelievably, a hole was opening up, there was a small patch of blue. The company was galvanized into action. The slaves ran to their starting positions. The car screeched to a skidding halt in front of us and the two propmen leaped out with a bag of charcoal. They dumped it into the brazier and the two other propmen blasted away at it with blowtorches. The hole in the sky grew and sunlight flooded through it, lighting exactly the area we were using for the scene. I called, "Action!" The shot went perfectly. As I called "Cut!" the hole in the clouds closed up and we were in near-total darkness.
Everyone was applauding and laughing, but I was in a fury. I let the prop department feel my wrath, blasting them up one side and down the other. The company stopped and stared at me. They looked surprised and offended. My assistant director came over to me. "Signor Fleischer, why are you so angry?"
"How can you ask me a question like that?"
"Well, how many shots were you doing to make?"
"Just the one."
"Did you get it, signor?"
"Yes, I did."
"Was it satisfactory?"
He held his hands close to his shoulders, his palms up, a look of mock bewilderment on his face. "Well, then?"

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