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Interview with Joe McGrath

LONDON - All was abustle in the abandoned conservatory of the Duke of Langley's late manorial seat. Two prop men were delicately arranging a chess game between skeletons while a third. high up against one wall, was pulling a hidden wire to make an enormous dragon sit up and look around.

The director, Joe McGrath, was flat on his stomach checking a camera angle for the entrance of Saint George. The director of a television documentary about directors was down on one knee, checking the camera angle on McGrath. And, peeking through the broken windows on the south wall of the conservatory, tourists from Seattle were filming their own 8-mm. production, to be entitled "Our Trip to a Movie Set." Unobserved behind them, a newspaper photographer took candids of the tourists shooting the set. Who really knows where reality begins and ends?

The movie was "The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom,'' in which Shirley MacLaine plays the wife of a wealthy brassiere manufacturer (Richard Attenborough). One day a sewing machine repairman comes to her home and she takes a liking to him. So she conceals him in the attic for three years, her husband unsuspecting.

"This is one of the seven fantasy sequences." McGrath explained, standing up and dusting off his corduroys. "See, the lovers dream about each other in different situations - sort of commercials for love, you know. This is Saint George saving her from the dragon," he said. "Obviously," he added. "We've already done Romeo and Juliet and Lara and Zhivago. Now there was a scene! Lara parting from Zhivago. We had the train, snow, everything."

Hovering over the dragon, a prop man employed an electric machine which spun ready-made cobwebs.

"Look," said a lady tourist from Seattle alertly, "an electric cobweb-making machine!"

McGrath fell into conference with Josef Shaftel, the film's producer. Both are relative newcomers to the British film industry, which shows greater signs of life at present than Hollywood. Shaftel, after heroic exploits as a Time-Life photographer in the Israeli war of independence, spent 17 years in Hollywood, produced 60 episodes of The Untouchables, finally pulled up all his roots and came to England. McGrath, who got his start in British television, was the first director assigned to that memorable boondoggle, "Casino Royale" (1967). With canny survival instinct, he walked off the picture, to be followed by no fewer than five other directors. "Mrs. Blossom" is his second picture.

"What's important in comedy," he explained, "is to play a bizarre situation straight. Everything has to make a peculiar kind of sense. Sure, this Saint George scene is a fantasy - but it will work if the audience believes that the two lovers are capable of having such a fantasy."

McGrath explained his directorial method: "Plan everything in advance. Know exactly what you want to do."

Was that his method in ''Casino Royale"?

He grinned, not without pain. "Yes, that," he said. "Well, that wasn't what you could call film-making, was it? In any event, I jumped overboard in time."

By this time Shaftel, the producer, was in conversation with the director of the television documentary. "No, no, no," he was insisting, "it isn't that you're not welcome on the set. As a matter of fact, I was the one who came up with the idea of the TV show in the first place. It's just that nobody bothered to inform us you'd be here today. " Whispered words, entreaties, explanations, veiled threats, requests of favors, calls to good fellowship, etc., later, the TV crew was allowed to stay. Shaftel excised his wrath by inviting the Seattle tourists to return to their bus.

"We originally thought this scene would be done outdoors," he explained. "Now we're crammed into the Duke of Langley's orangery, and I ask you: Where can we put another person?"

He said he came to England after all those years in Hollywood because the American film industry is too bound by convention. "Hollywood thinks it knows how to do everything," he said. "The way to do everything, Hollywood thinks, is to do it exactly as it's always been done. This movie, for example, could never have been done in Hollywood. It's a send up of infidelity, you see - really a daring idea. And it's not being made like a conventional movie. Most of the scenes are being improvised. Very unconventional." He sounded as if he were not quite sure why the scenes had to be improvised, but was willing to be game about it.

"I was in Hollywood 17 years," he said. "Now I feel like someone has lifted 400 pounds off my head." His shoulders straightened slightly. "We have the kind of freedom we need here. Of course, the movie is being financed with Hollywood money; but, strangely enough, its OK to make a movie this way over here, but it would never be permitted over there. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess."

At this point, Shirley MacLaine appeared on the set, garbed as a damsel in distress. She was required to stand on a rock high above the dragon's grotto, which she did while McGrath experimented with camera angles. It became increasingly clear that the shot would not be filmed before lunch, and indeed that Miss MacLaine had been summoned from her dressing room to do a job a double could have done: Stand in position while the camera angles were worked out.

"We're just trying to get you lined up with the dragon's head," McGrath shouted encouragingly, on his stomach again.

"I see," said Miss MacLaine.

When the camera angle was worked out, everyone broke for lunch. Since the Duke of Langley's manor is 40 miles out in the country west of London, Paramount had laid on two double-decker buses to serve as lunch rooms. But several members of the company chose to repair instead to the pub at the crossroads.

Miss MacLaine went into her dressing room, a trailer, to change out of the damsel-in-distress uniform and into something more conventional. Then she reappeared with Sidney Guilaroff, one of the world's two or three most highly paid hairdressers, best remembered in Chicago for his recent visit to do Debbie Reynolds' hair for the premiere of "Divorce American Style" and the typical American picnic that preceded it.

It appeared that Miss MacLaine was not so much annoyed at being called up right before lunch as she was at the prospect that her hair would have to be done all over again before the afternoon shooting. No wonder.

"It's fun to make this movie the way McGrath is making it," she said. "For one thing, he's more concerned with getting the picture right than getting the sound right. I think that may be the biggest difference between England and Hollywood. Over here, they get the picture right and then they dub in the sound later, if they need to.

"In Hollywood that makes them nervous, they're afraid it won't sound right, so they try to get the sound while the actual filming takes place. As a result, the sound engineer sometimes seems to have more to say about a scene than the cameraman or the director. Doesn't that seem tremendously petty?"

In person, Miss MacLaine looked exactly as she does on the screen, no surprise, and she turned out to be articulate and intelligent. You can never tell. She argued with a press agent about African history in Kenya, and she delivered a long expose about how Jacopetti and Prosperi faked long segments of "Africa Addio."

According to her, even the one scene in "Africa Addio" which everyone thought was genuine was faked: the Arab massacre. Jacopetti hired thousands of Arabs to lay flat on the ground and play dead. If you look closely, you can see that all the dead bodies are lying in the shade, not in the sun, strangely enough. Those Arabs. Then lunch was over and it was time for Saint George to slay the dragon. "You can say whatever you want about freedom in moviemaking," Miss MacLaine said, "but I'll promise you one thing: The farther you get from the front office, the more freedom you got."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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