Journey to the Planet of the Apes

Marvel magazine issue no 3 Dec 1974

By Chris Claremont

 

 

When one's company - in my case, Marvel - is actively involved in publishing a magazine called, "Planet of the Apes - and one of the networks is filming a series entitled "Planet of the Apes", it is only logical that each would be curious about the other. Wondering what the other is doing and how they are doing it. Being the more eager of the two, Marvel

struck first and this reporter found himself strapped into a big, crowded 747 flying westward into the Angeleno smog, laden with camera and tape recorder and reams of orders and advice.

 

The series is shot on the lot at Twentieth Century Fox's West Pico Boulevard studio complex, and on location at the Fox Ranch out in Malibu Canyon, about thirty-odd miles outside Los Angeles proper. The studio itself has shrunk tremendously from the "boom" days of the thirties and forties. A vast tract of back lot has since been gouged up and transformed into Century City - which movie-goers saw razed and destroyed by fire and simian revolt in the mini-classic CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. And yet, even today, with the studio proper reduced to a mass of sound-stages huddled together on the few acres that remain of the mighty Fox lot, there is an eerie feeling about the place. Because this is where the movies came from -and where some of them still do, come from -and the magic is still there.

 

I turned in off West Picmond and almost immediately I was literally enveloped by some massive pieces left over from the huge Parade set from HELLO, DOLLY. A set that includes a few hundred yards of full-sized two and three-story buildings

and what - from not very far away - looks like a practical, though ancient, elevated subway line and station. It isn't practical of course - that would have been a ridiculous piece of extravagance but the illusion is an incredibly powerful one and that sets one to thinking. Because if there is any one thing that the Planet of the Apes films and TV series both need to survive, it is illusion, the suspension of disbelief by the audience. The willingness of the people watching the film to accept that they are Apes they are watching up there on the silver screen and not actors in sophisticated appliances. Lose that illusion -say to yourself that those are just people in funny masks and there's really no reason to keep on watching the film; it's no fun anymore.

 

The first day I was on the lot, the Apes crew was finishing work on their fourth episode (though not necessarily the fourth to be shown). A suspenseful piece entitled, The Trap, I threaded my way through the DOLLY set, stepping first through the door of an 1890's bar, then through a second, far more massive and functional door onto the soundstage proper.

 

Stages 9 & 10 - where Apes was being shot- are about average size but to a relative novice like myself, used to the cramped rehearsal halls and only slightly larger theatres of Off Broadway back in New York, it was like stepping into a vast empty box.

 

The first man I met was a gentleman named Emmet, who is in charge of looking after the coffee/tea/fresh water wagon and of taking care of incoming phone/written messages for actors and crew during shooting hours. He also checks guests in and out, making sure that the people who wander in are cleared for wandering with the front office. He's not a guard and yet, in a way, he is, being the stages first line of defence against outsiders but there is no way he could, or should, be considered any kind of flunky. He is a really nice guy.

 

Anyway, once past Emmet and the coffee wagon, I just stood still a moment and looked around the stage. At the far end, in the opposite corner from the door I'd entered through, the crew was working on one of today"s scenes. A sequence involving Virdon, Burke, Galen, a human family, Urko, a gorilla assistant and the aftershock of a fairly serious earthquake (though not necessarily in that order). The rest of the stage was dark. To imagine what it was like picture in your own mind a box that is a hundred and fifty feet square by thirty to forty feet high. With catwalks and lighting pipes criss-crossing the space above you like some huge, wooden spider's web.

 

There's a curious feeling of impermanence to the interior of the stage, everything looked like it had just been jury-rigged into position, an hour or so ago. Simply slammed together so that it would hold for a day or so and give the carpenters no trouble at all when they arrive to rip it all apart to set up somewhere else. And that feeling isn't all illusion. Because the floor of the stage is littered with the shells of sets: a large barn interior, the Ape council chamber, various parts of various interiors of various human dwellings- which all seem to be barely a step or two above hovel in design and appearance. More Ape City interiors, more human village interiors, the whole kit-and caboodle tagged and shoved neatly out of the way until it"s needed, either later on in this episode or in some other.

 

Which is not to imply that the soundstage is any kind of big, hollow, empty, sacrosanct temple sort of place. In reality, it isn't even all that neat. There are just too many people running around trying to do too much in too short a time, all of them wondering how the hell they got on this damn treadmill in the first place. There are actors, actors' family and friends. Child actors' parents, child actors' tutors. Technicians, more technicians, and lots and lots of extraneous onlookers. Such as myself.

So I stood as far out of the way as possible and I watched. And I learned.

 

For the actors, the biggest part of a working day in film is waiting. Waiting for the camera set-up to be completed so they can shoot the scene. Waiting for the film to be reloaded, waiting for the director to finish a hurried confab with his Director of Photography - in this case Gerald Perry Finnerman, of Star Trek and Kojak fame, an excellent craftsman who well-deserves his reputation.

 

The waiting isn't so bad if one is a principal character and/or one is in the scene being, or about to be-shot. One can always study one's script or talk with the other actors about how one is going to play the scene or one can do an impromptu rehearsal which indicates, to me, one of the crippling faults of the television series as shot in the United States. All too often, the only time actors have to rehearse and work with each other and the director on their scenes is during the camera set-ups. Which leaves the quality of the work done by the actor up to the actor and to the Director of Photography. If the Cinematographer is a real klutz and it takes all day to get the light and camera set, then the actor has that much more time to work on his scene. But if he's a pro (and Gerry Finnerman is a pro) - the actor can often be up the proverbial creek minus the proverbial paddle, because the only way anyone can rehearse then is by having the crew sit around and wait. And that can be expensive.

 

Which means, simply that the actors have to be very good.

 

I watched the crew run through the earthquake scene before they all broke for lunch. They'd been shooting it all morning, evidently, and things hadn't been going well and they were starting to run behind schedule. The problem was that whenever you see earthquakes or starships getting blown around subspace-things like that-bodies shaking or falling or getting thrown about on screen, nine times out of ten it's the bodies themselves or the camera(s)-that re doing all the shaking. The set stays nice and level on good old dependable terra firma (yet, true to form, a couple of days after they shot this scene the Los Angeles basin was shaken by a pretty respectable aftershock of the Sylmar 'quake of two years ago).

 

So, there are Ron Harper, Jim Naughton, Roddy McDowall and this episode's guest artists, shaking and jiggling around a crude wooden table, trying to knock a bottle onto the floor without even hinting that they are the true culprits - it was the earthquake done it! Except that nothing happened. The bottle either stayed where it was or fell at the wrong time. And they had to do it again… and again... and again.

 

Eventually the bottle got it right and everyone broke for lunch, humans heading for the commissary, Apes for the fruit/soft drink stand and Roddy McDowall for his private Winnebago. Private because, after all, he is the star of the show, but also 

because wearing as complex and painful an appliance as he wears five days a week, often twelve hours a day, can be agony in and of itself. Add to that the constant hubbub and ‘ooooh's-and-ahhhh's’ from the `peanut gallery' of guests on the set. Their constant attempts to get a few words - or a lot of words ñ or an autograph out of him and the choice soon becomes very basic: either one gets some privacy or one goes - if you'll pardon the pun - bananas.

 

A couple of days later the Fox Ranch crew was shooting the fifth episode, The Cure - I spoke to Fred Blau, one, of make-up chief"s Dan Striepeke's team of make-up artists assigned to handle this most critical, delicate and essential facet of Planet of the Apes.

 

I met four of them while I was out there - Fred Blau, Sonny Burman, Ed Butterworth and Frank Westmore (of the legendary Westmore, brothers, whose names can be found next to the make-up credit on more Hollywood productions than seems decent) - but there were more. One make-up man assigned to each actor who had to wear a full application, with a general crew to handle the mask-wearing Apes (the extras) and the human actors.

 

The most notorious element of John Chamber's brilliant Ape applications is, of course the time needed to put them on. The average figure seems to be about three hours, depending on the skill, of the make-up artist involved. Because these men have to apply the make-up day in and day out, sheer familiarity with both the process and the face it's being applied to enable the make-up artists to streamline their operation slightly, thereby making it easier on themselves and the actor. Even so, the general time still rounds out at close to three hours.

 

Things can get especially hairy out at the Fox Ranch, where-on a good, day in mid-summer- the temperature can head up towards three, figures. When that basic heat is combined with the heat generated by the giant arc lamps it can get very hot and life can often get quite uncomfortable for a man wearing a full-face simian application and acting under those lights. A weight loss of ten pounds on a day like that is not considered unusual.

 

And you thought acting was a fun profession, did you?

 

The make-up team usually ends up creating about 120 applications a week, and, running through them almost as quickly, fitting the principals' applications over life masks moulded from those actor's faces. Guest stars, on the other hand, must make do with applications, moulded off a series of general life masks; so, for them, the fitting is not always exact, and occasionally that can lead to some on-the-spot realignment and adjustment. Which is no fun even in an air-conditioned dressing room, but when it's done in hundred-degree, heat.. Ouch!

 

I went wandering that first afternoon, out of Stage 10 and into Stage 9, to see what the crews were busy working on for tomorrow's schedule. It wasn't much, just a full-size mock up of a San Francisco subway station, complete with full-size subway train and lots and lots of rubble, courtesy of a gentleman referred to cryptically as 'The Cowboy Man.'

 

The Cowboy is dressing the subway set, so that it would look appropriately ancient for tomorrow’s scenes - after all, it is two thousand-odd years old and there have been a few earthquakes in the interim that have shattered the tunnel roof and sealed the station. Quakes that soon serve to trap a desperate hunted Pete Burke and his chief hunter, Urko. And therein you have the reason for the episode's title, The Trap: Urko and Burke are stuck in, this very old, very decrepit BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station, facing certain death unless they can work together to get out. Nice plot, huh?'

 

Anyway, the Cowboy Man had sprayed some cobwebs all over the nooks and crannies of the set and was now busy sorting through a tractor-scoop full of concrete chunks and bricks. It was high-class rubble - only the best for Planet of the Apes – and he was searching for just the right-sized pieces of just the right consistency.

 

Suffice to say, when I saw the set the next day I had to admit the Cowboy Man had done one fine job. The place was a real mess.

 

A few days later, I was out at the Fox Ranch, up in Malibu Canyon watching the Apes crew go to work on their next episode - The Cure - under the direction of Bernard McEyeety.  The ranch itself is about five miles deep, reaching back into the hills of the Las Vergines/Malibu Canyon road. Apes is tucked away at the back of the ranch. Past the ruined temple from 'The Sand Pebbles’ (that Warner Bros. uses occasionally for Kung Fu) and in the shadow of the knoll that the helicopters swing around in the opening credits of "M *A*S*H". Here I found the village of Trion and I was back on the Planet of the Apes.

 

To set the scene The Cure involves our heroes, a gorgeous, young love interest named Amy, Urko, Zaius, malaria, some rather pig-headed medical chimpanzees, some rather belligerent gorillas and the bark of the cinchona tree.

 

This is a big-budget episode, a lot of exteriors are necessitating a fair amount of background villagers. Men, women, children and appropriate farm animals of all ages and degrees of health, (after all, many of the people were supposed to be dying of malaria) and a fair amount of extraneous apes are backing up the regular apes and there’s this week's guest star, David Sheiner.

 

They'd already been shooting all morning by the time I got there, Bernie MeEveety was discussing the shots he wanted with Gerry Finnerman. Finnerman was wearing a screaming, orange, yachting windbreaker and a curious Rivera/ Panama hat to keep the sun away and moving from the lights to the big, boom-mounted Mitchell camera, checking to see that everything was just about right before the scene began. As for everyone else, they mostly sat in the shade. Principals worked on their lines, simian principals had their applications checked over and extras were just sitting and talking. The crew (those that weren't working) were doing likewise and waiting for a call from First Assistant Director Gil Mandelik or one of his two assistants, (Ed Letting and Cheryl Downes) to galvanise, the whole melange into action.

 

Images pop out of those two days out at the ranch. People moving across the dusty, main square of Trion, yelling orders and ducking out of sight behind the houses as the camera operator yelled that they were in the shot. (Actually he would tell the A.D. and the A.D. yelled - after all, he had a megaphone so yelling was no great hassle). A couple of authentic looking wrangler types trying to track down a trio of hardened, escaped chickens, reluctant to return to their wire coop after being set for a couple of scenes. Chickens may well be among the dumbest animals God ever created,

but they can be excruciatingly, exasperatingly brilliant pains-in-the-butt when they've a mind to be - and these chickens had a panic squawk that would scare a Lovecraft demon out of a year's growth! Or strolling idly around the compound, taking notes and watching the action only to suddenly find oneself face-to face with an orang-utan sitting in a director's chair in pants and torn undershirt, wearing the latest in Foster Grant's 1974 shades. Or bumping into Roddy McDowall as he dashed from his Winnebago to the set, a blue terrycloth robe around his body, a cigarette stuck into a holder poking out of his mouth and sunglasses looking oddly right on his simian features. Suddenly he shrugs off the robe and shifts into his chimpanzee tunic and slipping out of the whole, irritatingly hot mess as soon as the scene was done and McEveety gives him the OK.

 

And then - there were the goats.

 

Picture this: A village, its people weary and listless, worn down by what they view as a helpless battle against something in the air that is striking them down without mercy and killing them. Enter Virdon, Burke and Galen. Virdon has a plan; the disease seems to resemble malaria. If it is malaria, he and the villagers can fight it. Amy won't die (having left a wife and son back in the good old days, before the time warp caught his starship, Virdon is torn between desire for Amy and desire for the woman he loved and left behind; very guilt-ridden, very typical, very American. So what else is new these days?). Virdon calls all the villagers down and starts to give them the Word.

 

Except that there are these goats, see, brought in for general background and tethered way out beyond the village perimeter in what was hoped to be a classic case of out of sight, out of mind.

No such luck.

 

Virdon begins his speech. Gather round, he calls.

 

Baaa!

 

He starts telling the villagers what they have to do.

 

Baaaaa!

 

He keeps going.

 

Baaaaaaaaaa!

 

Not for nothing is Ron Harper a star, undaunted by the off-camera opposition, he ploughs ahead, oblivious to those members of the far off-camera crew already convulsing on the ground. He is reaching the climax of his speech. Unfortunately, so are the goats. The whole... whatever... of goats are in on it now, one Baa triggering off an answering chorus. No way is the sound mike gonna pass that noise by!

 

Finally...

 

Harper: "And we've got to... get rid of those Goddamned goats!" (Or words to that effect).

 

And as he says this, collapsing towards the ground in an aborted gesture of penultimate frustration. I mean, being heckled by a goat for crying out loud as the entire, crew goes into brief, but trenchant, hysterics.

 

The goats are struck off. The scene is done again.

 

And from the far, meadow, wafting in on the wind eager, questing ears pick up one final, defiant,. never-say-die: Baaaa!

 

Luckily for the wee beastie, he was nowhere near either star or director at the time or he might have found himself somewhat precipitously shuffled off this mortal coil of ours. As far as this crew was concerned, that goat had had it in Hollywood.

 

Will the series be any good? By the time you read this it will have been on almost a month but this is September and the show is still in-the can and an unknown quantity but I figure I owe an answer, so here goes. For better or for worse..

 

I honestly do not know.

 

I've seen good people doing good work. People like Assistant Director Bill Derwin, Costumer Paula Katz and Wardrobe Assistant Pete Dawson - and all the other people I've mentioned throughout this article. I've seen one of the best crews I've ever seen work like a fine-tuned Swiss watch putting this show together and I've seen actors practising their craft and doing a damn good job, of it.

 

But all I’ve seen to date are pieces. A scene here, a scene there, all of it done live under conditions that are nowhere near ideal.

 

Because the pieces won't make sense until they're all threaded together, edited, spliced, with a soundtrack and all the rest of TV post-production work, it's almost impossible to make any kind of valid judgement about the material one has seen. But what I've seen I've liked and I think the show will work well and I hope it runs five years, minimum! Hell, I hope it catches Gunsmoke.

 

'Cause I've been to the Planet of the Apes, ladies and gents, and I want to go back. Because I like it there, and I hope it's going to be there to find for a long, long time.

 

But that, as all of us know, is up to you.