I just received an early Christmas present.
A while ago, I was contacted by Bernard Selling, the director of the short film based on Ray Bradbury's "The Flying Machine". The film is one of many "educational" adaptations of Bradbury stories out there - and like many of its type, it has slipped out of the regular distribution channels and all but disappeared. I have never seen the film myself.
Fortunately, Bernard has a copy of his own, and is seeking ways of getting it to an audience.
When Bernard contacted me, he promised to write up the story behind the making of his film. I'm pleased to report that Bernard kept his promise: his story is my early Christmas present.
So, without further ado, here is Bernard with the story of...
The Making of "The Flying Machine"
The year is 1978. Having made a number of short, 'relationship' films for the Franciscan Communication Center in 1974 and 75, I had begun to think about doing some films of an historical or literary nature. I talked to the people at BFA International Media. We agreed to do several films. I proposed a Stephen Crane short story, "The Three Miraculous Soldiers" because it had many of the same motifs and themes as the Red Badge of Courage.
While working on the Crane short, I acquired the rights to several stories including Ray Bradbury's "The Flying Machine," and Theodore Dreiser's "Phantom Gold." The Crane story turned out pretty well, though my working relationship with BFA was somewhat strained so I decided not to make the other short films for them.
Years went by and I started teaching film production.
One day, I started thinking about doing "The Flying Machine" and contacted a friend whom I thought could probably raise the money. She said she had a dream about working with me on a film so we began to develop the Bradbury story.
I had learned a lot from my experiences with the Crane story--principally that, as a filmmaker. I had to make the best film I could and not worry too much about whether it was close or not so close to the writer's 'literary' version. Thus I decided to turn Ray's two page story into a 15 page script. Once I had written it, I got in touch with Ray who urged me to come over to his office in Century City. A welcoming and gregarious person, he and I spent several hours chatting. Her encouraged me to take the story in whatever direction I felt would work best. I handed him a copy of the script and waited for his response. He looked it over, smiled and said, "This looks excellent. You have expanded all the places I would have expanded if I had been thinking of something longer."
My friend and I raised the $18,000 I needed to make the film without much trouble. We found a nice location for the outdoor meeting of the Emperor and his assistant--UCLA's Japanese gardens. The interiors we looked at the Yamashiro Restaurant in Hollywood. For the exteriors of the Birdman landing, we choose a park setting in Malibu.
I interviewed a young man for the part of the Emperor's assistant and he seemed adequate. He mentioned that his uncle was a well-known actor, Jimmy Hong. Jimmy and I met. A friendly man with the exact face I had hoped for, his only words were, "Hire my nephew and I will do the part." So I had two actors.
In quest of the birdman, I looked at a number of actors from the Asian Pacific Theatre Company in downtown Los Angeles. I found just the person I needed.
So we had money, locations and actors, although not much money for crew for a film that had to come in at $1000/minute. I contacted an assistant camerawoman who had worked on my Crane film and she agreed to do the film as long as she got credit as Director Photography.
Last but not least, I had to find someone to construct an authentic looking flying machine. I happened to see a TV special about the Wright brothers. The authentic looking aircraft had been constructed by a fellow who lived in Long Beach, California, not far from where I lived. His name was Jack Lambie. Jack and I met and he agreed to build what we needed for a modest amount of money, more for the fun of it than anything else. When he finished it, I realized that the flying machine would look quite beautiful on film. I was a happy director.
And so we began. The initial hitch came when we heard the conversation between the Emperor and his chief Mandarin, a burly fellow who looked the part but had a substantial Brooklyn accent. We all laughed at that little hitch, cut down his part to two lines and went on.
The next difficulty came in shooting the moment when the Executioner meets up with the Emperor and the Birdman. The shooting itself went well but in looking at the dailies, the sound was a huge problem--everything was out of sync. (The camerawoman had forgotten to flip the sync switch linking the camera and the sound recorder.) I spent many a long night cutting frames out of the mag track trying to get this very important sequence in sync.
When we went out to Malibu to film, we had plenty of light and a beautiful day in which to shoot. However, the camerawoman became hesitant and wanted to shoot take after take of each setup because she was unsure of the exposure. Finally I insisted that we shoot it at f5.6 and go on. The takes all looked just fine but we ran out of time to do some of the close-ups I wanted.
The last day of shooting took place at the Yamashiro Restaurant. I was surprised to find that the scene designer and the camerawoman had done nothing when we arrived at 9:00 am. My words to them had been 'build the set early in the morning and light it." To my consternation, the camerawoman was not willing to light the set herself and insisted on bringing in a 'lighting director' which cost me a cool $300.00 extra for the day.
Finally, in the middle of the afternoon, we began to shoot the interiors. Jimmy Hong and the birdman both did a fine, quick job and we were able to get the interiors without a problem. However, at that point the Yamashiro manager told me we had to wrap up our shooting in half an hour because guests would be coming in for dinner at 5:00 pm.
I was pretty frantic: the light outside was falling fast and we had to shoot the birdman's escape from the Emperor's grasp, as well as the guards' pursuit. I set up the camera and told the camerawoman to shoot as best she could. I had the actors ready, staged the action and then shot the Emperor's speech and the birdman's escape all in twenty minutes. It turned out fine.
The light had fallen and we managed to get a nice silhouette shot of the guards hauling the birdman back to the Executioner's dungeon. We were not able to get a shot of the steep steps with flaming torches illuminating the action. Too bad. We had fire marshals standing by (at $200.00 a day).
Once the principal filming had been completed, I had to figure out how to shoot a scene of the birdman in the air, inside the 'flying machine'. At first, I put a dummy in the contraption and had a crane lift it up high into the sky. It looked fake. Next, I asked the birdman if he wanted to go up in the contraption. He begged off.
I realized I would have to do it myself.
A few days later, I asked Jack Lambie, the creator of the flying machine to come up and supervise, just to make sure the contraption would hold me 50 feet in the air. It wasn't built to hold anything but a dummy, which is what I felt like as I was hauled up to the 50 foot height.
Although Jack never made it to the shoot, we went ahead. I strapped myself into the contraption, perched on a single aluminum pipe and the crew hoisted me in the air. I flapped the wings, continually asking the cameraman if he had gotten the shot. The pipe felt like it was cutting me in half. Aww!!
At length, the crew lowered me onto the top of the VW bus from which I had been launched. The cameraman assured me we had gotten usable footage and we went home. Looking at the dailies of the afternoon's shoot, I was satisfied. It looked believable and cut into the film nicely.
Jack Lambie had flown his plane to the wrong airport and never made it to the shoot.
When I put it all together, I got a musician buddy of mine, John Braheny, to write a score. He had created the music track for an earlier film of mine, "Little Train, Little Train," and I knew him to be imaginative and reliable. He created a haunting flute-like improvisation that fit the film nicely.
“The Flying Machine” went into distribution and did reasonably well for the first year, at which time the distribution company went out of business. I approached another distributor who was willing to buy me out, enabling me to pay back the investors the principal plus a 30% profit, almost unheard of for an educational film.
Everyone who saw the film loved it, remarking that it seemed authentic, that the actors were very believable and that the theme-- progress vs. the status quo-- was a timeless theme. When I showed Ray the film, he raved about it, saying that it "resulted in a film that was every bit as good as it had looked on paper" the day we sat in his office. He went on to give me many more compliments which felt good coming from the author of this fine little story.
At that point, I felt good about my chances of making it to the next level as a filmmaker--making low budget, features or even modestly budgeted history films. I knew I could get good performances from actors and I knew how to create a fine visual look to whatever I undertook. I had learned the art of adapting stories to the film medium.
Sadly, I never made another film. During the three year period of time following the making of the films for the Franciscan Center, I had made no money in the film business and very little as a teacher. I had exhausted all my funds and had mortgaged my house to the hilt. Thus, I had to go back to teaching, more or less full time.
So much for the story behind the making of "The Flying Machine." A good time in my life, although all too brief, it seems to me, as I turn 71 years old.
Bernard Selling - Topanga, CA - December 19, 2009
Many thanks, Bernard - and Merry Christmas to everyone!