TCMFF 2016 Talks: Bruce Brown and Eva Marie Saint
June 23, 2016
Yes, I know it's been almost two months since TCMFF 2016, and the bulk of my pieces published here since then have focused on the festival. How come? Well, I still have a huge amount of content to share and figure this is a better outlet than my phone's internal storage.
Below, I have highlights from two very different Q&As that took place at the festival, both of which accompanied movies celebrating 50th anniversaries this year. The first was with Bruce Brown, director of The Endless Summer (1966), who was as mellow and laid back as his documentary proved to be. The second was with legend Eva Marie Saint, one of the stars of The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), who proved utterly charming and engaging.
Bruce Brown and Randy Williams. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner)
The Endless Summer with director Bruce Brown
I don't know anything about Bruce Brown or surfing. However, I remember having always been intrigued by The Endless Summer poster, which in all honesty I didn't know was actually advertising for a movie when I first saw it years ago. Plus, I'm always down for a travelogue and/or a documentary, so I figured I'd give this special 50th anniversary screening of The Endless Summer a shot.
Quite casually, Brown walked out before journalist Randy Williams finished formally introducing him. So right off the bat, I knew this conversation was going to be a little bit different. As Williams started discussing The Endless Summer, Brown interjected with a heads up that nowadays, some of the narration wouldn't be considered politically correct, and there's also a scene in which the surfers comment on some sharks in the water...which actually turned out to be dolphins. So, "give me a break," Brown said.
This is the imagery I - and probably tons of others, as well - have long been familiar with.
On coming up with the idea to shoot a film about surfing and travel the world doing so
After Brown filmed a movie on 8mm and screened it locally, his buddy Dale Velzy offered up $5,000 for cameras, travel and one year's worth of Brown's living expenses; that was the start of Brown's crazy journey with The Endless Summer. Though Brown only originally intended to shoot in Cape Town, South Africa, the director found out it was actually $50 cheaper to buy a round-the-world ticket. Consequently, he spent time scoping out good surfing spots in locations where there existed no easy airline connections so they could wait a few days and film in the meantime. In summation: "That's how we got to all those other places; to save 50 bucks!" he explained.
On casting the leads, Mike Hynson and Robert August, and shooting abroad
The criteria for casting Hynson and August was pretty simple and straightforward, according to Brown: "I knew them both, and they could go, so that was it." When asked if they found themselves in any precarious situations abroad, Brown replied: "We were too young, dumb and stupid to know anything better...it's like, wow we got a ride, who cares?" (So that's probably a yes...)
Brown also shared a humorous episode that occurred while they were shooting on a beach in Ghana. He was trying to change a roll of film on the beach, and as such, he was standing there wearing a black bag over his head. All the inquisitive kids around him who had never seen something like that before kept sticking their heads up into the bag. In the end, Brown couldn't get the film thread!
On finally catching the perfect wave on film
The quest for the perfect wave was finally realized in Cape St. Francis in South Africa, an area that's wasn't yet popular for surfing. The morning leading up to the event actually proved quite mellow; Brown and company stepped outside, saw a wave and the guys jumped in. Brown recalled that the prime conditions lasted only about 2-3 hours, but at least they could finally say they caught their lucky break!
Brown and Williams on stage. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner)
On securing distribution for the movie
After successfully screening the picture in Santa Monica, Brown approached distributors to obtain a wider release, but most doubted the film would play well outside of coastal areas. Well, Brown proved them wrong! He rented a theater in Wichita, Kansas in the middle of winter, and the movie sold out for two weeks, breaking the theater record set by 1964's My Fair Lady. But even that accomplishment didn't help the cause much, and Brown ended up renting another small theater in Kips Bay, New York to try the picture out on the east coast. There, he managed to assemble several high power film critics together, and though he recalled half of them falling asleep, when the reviews were published, they miraculously turned out great! The Endless Summer played that theater for a year, and Brown finally landed a distributor, Cinema 5, one of the only companies that agreed to keep the poster and movie as it was (that is, not add "chicks" or anything else in an attempt to attract viewers, as at least one other company proposed).
The Library of Congress selected The Endless Summer to join the National Film Registry in 2002, and just last year the Smithsonian Institute inducted the picture and poster into their collection. Brown joked that he hoped no one in his family would want to attend the Smithsonian event, but of course everyone did - 19 kids, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. They "all ate a lot, drank a lot...It was a tragedy!" he exclaimed (hopefully in jest, because both of the above accolades are pretty damn prestigious).
The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming with star Eva Marie Saint
As with Bruce Brown, I (rather surprisingly) am quite unfamiliar with Eva Marie Saint's work, having only seen her in On the Waterfront (1954) and North by Northwest (1959). Though I really wanted my first viewing of this film to be in a theater with a full house, it played Sunday afternoon, and by that time, I was beat. My next best bet was to only stay for Saint's discussion with Leonard Maltin and then leave. While I usually hate dashing like that, I'm glad I decided to attend at least part of the event and hear their conversation, because it was an absolute marvel to be in Saint's presence and listen to her speak.
Saint and Maltin shared a wonderfully warm and brisk rapport. The actress was in jolly spirits as she joked that she hadn't watched The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming since it was brand new: "Wow, that was 1885, I think." When Maltin reminded her that the film was produced 50 years ago, Saint exclaimed: "50 years?! I'm only 45!"
Looking pretty good for 45! Eva Marie Saint at TCMFF 2016 with Leonard Maltin. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Turner)
On shooting the movie in Fort Bragg, CA, which stood in for the east coast
Directed by Norman Jewison ("he loves actors and actors love him," Saint raved), The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming involved the entire community of Fort Bragg, and by the time they were finished filming, Saint reported that the cast and crew knew everyone in town. Ironically, all those people who were so excited about working on a glamorous movie by then knew how much time and effort it took, and the process wasn't so alluring anymore! Jewison invited all the townsfolk to the rushes, which were screened each night in a local theater, because according to him, everybody involved with the picture had a stake in it.
In a humorous aside, Saint brought up a beautiful church on the Fort Bragg set that she always admired but never had the chance to look inside. Years later, when she was driving north with her husband, they stopped by the town so she could finally take a peek. When she couldn't find the building, she asked for assistance from a local who informed her that Fort Bragg didn't have a church; the building she remembered was just the front of a set, built specifically for the movie!
On one of her favorite scenes in the film
"This is just between you all and I," Saint joked, before describing a scene in which Alan Arkin, portraying one of the Russians, asks for her keys. She was supposed to have the keys in a certain spot in her purse, but they weren't there. When Arkin took the purse, he kept making funny noises trying to locate the prop; luckily, Jewison kept the camera rolling and was accepting of the snafu, and the moment made the final cut. Saint joked that if she's ever with her daughter and/or son and can't find something in her purse, they imitate Arkin's sounds!
Saint revealing 'secrets' to remain only between her and...the 600 plus people in the crowd. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Turner)
On the atmosphere on set and camaraderie between the cast and crew
Though the film is a comedy, it was also politically timely, and not every character partakes directly in the hilarity; for example, Saint was not given any outwardly funny lines to deliver. Yet, "everyone kind of loved everyone" and respected each other, Saint said. It also seemed like quite a tight knit crew: On foggy evenings when the weather prohibited filming, Jewison oftentimes invited the company to his house for movies and dessert, or sometimes he'd host an amateur night, where Saint would play the violin. "It was a sweet, sweet experience," she remembered.
The conversation ended with Saint imparting some wisdom: "Time flies by so enjoy every bit...I'm 92. I'm only saying that because I don't feel it. I don't look it." Maltin reasoned that Saint doesn't feel or look her age, because she doesn't think it, she doesn't live in the past and she is open to new experiences and new endeavors, which keeps her active. Saint agreed with him and added: "I have a beautiful family, children and a sweet husband. I'm blessed."
Stay tuned for more coverage from Anna Karina's Q&A with Ben Mankiewicz where she discussed Jean Luc Godard and Band of Outsiders (1964) and Gina Lollobrigida's conversation with Leonard Maltin in Club TCM.
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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.