O F F T H E G R O U N D
W I T H C H A R L E S M A R R I O T T
Over 40 years later its amazing just how many stories are still to be told from the Production of the Superman Movie series. Many of the talented creatives from the era are still with us, with many still active in the industry. SUPERMANIA extends it’s reach far and wide to track down these industry professionals in the hope they will share their recollections and experiences with the multitudes of Superman Movie fans across the globe.
One such member of the original crew I’ve been lucky enough to get in touch with recently is Mr. Charles Marriott, 2nd Assistant Director of the Flying Unit. Charles was present throughout the shooting of Superman: The Movie and granted SUPERMANIA this fascinating interview about his time behind the scenes…
Charles – Thank you so much for speaking with SUPERMANIA – Can we start with how and when you came to be involved in the project back in the day?
The first thing I should point out is that this all happened 42 years ago! So my memory may be a tad rusty. I think my involvement came about because Patricia Carr, who was PA to Bob Simmonds the PM, was a great friend of my then wife. I had been working at Pinewood on a Disney film. So I joined the Flying Unit and Dominic Fulford was the 1st AD.
What did your role as Second AD of the Flying Unit encompass exactly and what were your responsibilities?
Typically a 2nd AD is more involved with the Artists and coordinating with the Production office about the shooting schedule. But often there was very little to arrange other than to try and bag Chris Reeve from the main unit to do a shot and make sure we had the right costumes and make up, hair etc. to match the main unit’s footage. So I was really a “Floor” 2nd AD. I had only been a 2nd AD three times previously. I didn’t enjoy the 2nd AD role so much. I was a very experienced 3rd AD from the early 70’s and I relished being by the camera. I was used to handling and staging big Crowd (Extras/Background action) scenes and the like. Subsequently in the late 70’s early 80’s I became a 1st AD for a short spell before taking the highly unusual step of becoming a Director in my own right. But that’s another story!
What challenges did the Unit face during 1977 to create the illusion of flight and make it believable for the big screen?
The main unit was in full swing but the flying unit who were responsible for filming anything that involved Superman leaving the ground and flying in the air and Space had just started. For the first 3 months all we shot were tests trying to perfect the front projection and the Zoptic equipment. I remember we had a massive front projection screen on “A” stage at Pinewood. The Zoptic equipment basically allowed the front projection plates and the camera lens to zoom in sync with each other. So a sort of Autocue like arrangement where the background plate (a piece of film shot specifically to show moving backgrounds) would be projected at 90 degrees onto a see through mirror immediately in front of the lens. This allowed the camera to see both Superman and the background simultaneously. I’m sure someone in the camera department could explain this better. But I’m fairly certain that this hadn’t been done on this scale before.
Why front projection and not back projection I hear you ask? Well if you imagine you have Superman in the foreground flying and he has to be positioned reasonably close to the camera but far enough away from the actual projection screen which was about 30/40 feet further away behind him, you can see that you would have to knock the studio wall out to get the equivalent throw to obtain the right perspectives. It was complex but hugely exciting. Combine the fact that the all the Camera and Projection equipment and crew were on big scaffold platform rig about 12/15 feet in the air which was a major feat in itself! We had a small crew, 2nd unit size, but this involved Sparks and Riggers and of course the odd stunt double, although Chris Reeve did a huge amount of his own flying. Apart from being one of the nicest Actors that I have ever worked with, he was a supreme athlete. More of that later.
It’s maintained that the best Special Effect of all was Chris Reeve himself. Would you agree with that statement and what memories do you have of working with him?
I’ve never heard of Chris being referred to as a “Special Effect”. I have already said what a thoroughly nice and highly professional Actor he was. He made it look easy but just how he maintained such stamina and getting his performance right still astounds me. Put it this way he ate loads of steak and had to work out rigorously to maintain his physique. One amusing memory of him was when he was filming Superman 2 or 3 (I don’t remember which!). I had left the crew by then, but I had promised two good friends (nothing to do with the film biz) that I would take them for lunch in the legendary Pinewood Studios Restaurant. You could do this back then. Nowadays I can’t even get into Pinewood with all the security etc. So, we were sat at a nice table and sitting just over the other side of the restaurant was Peter Rogers (Producer of the Carry On films) as well as other notables. Anyway we had reached the coffee stage and into the room came Chris Reeve semi in costume to get lunch himself. I had my back to him but my lunch guest’s jaws dropped at the sight of this near perfect specimen of a man walking towards our table. Chris came over and put his arm around me and asked how I was. At which point, I introduced my two friends to him and he duly shook their hands. They were speechless. He was in a bit of a hurry so he left our table after 45 seconds or so. One of my guests still dumbfounded, leaned towards me and whispered…..”Do you know who that was??!” I burst out laughing. I still see these friends to this day and I remind them of their encounter with Superman. His girlfriend (now wife) didn’t wash her hands for a week! It’s a bitter irony that a man who epitomised all that was Superman should have such a terrible accident, become severely disabled and subsequently pass away aged just 52. It brings it home to me as I was born a mere month and a half before him. So we were both 27 years old when filming Superman. I’ll let you all do the arithmetic as to how old I am now!!!
Take us back to Pinewood/Shepperton in ‘77/’78 and tell us about the atmosphere on the set – was it exciting to be part of something so experimental?
Firstly, I only ever worked at Pinewood on this film. When I joined the crew the enormity and scale of the production didn’t hit me straight away. If the end credits on the first Superman film were anything to go by, there were literally a couple of thousand people working on the production at it’s peak in various parts of the world. An example of the experimental aspect……how could you get Superman to fly on camera? But this wasn’t Superman it was an actor. In the early days there were experiments in Canada (I think) involving skydivers jumping out of planes with a parachute hidden underneath the classic Superman costume. This probably could have worked for short periods of flight but the major issue was the famous red Cape. It just wouldn’t behave as a flowing garment and I suspect you could detect the slightly bulging parachute under it! So much of the Flying unit’s testing involved getting the cape to look authentic, because to capture Superman in flight we had to use quite a lot of powerful wind machines. In the end we adopted different Capes with motorised ribs in it to give it a natural looking flutter effect. Remember we were in a Studio. No CGI, it was all mechanical. There were some other very clever ways we managed to “fly” Superman and indeed Lois Lane and Superman together on her first flight, but I’m not sure that I have ever heard anyone spilling the beans on those sort of sequences. Besides, it would ruin the illusion!
The infamous ‘Cape Flapping Device’ designed & built by Les Bowie was key to creating the illusion of flight during for process photography. The unit has since been restored and is now in full working order (video courtesy Jim Bowers/Greg Thomas
We used video playback on the flying unit. Chris Warren was the operator. I think he worked for Samuelsons back then. Of course this technology was in it’s infant stages back then. I remember we had to have a special viewfinder set up on the main 35mm film camera so as to see exactly what would be on the neg. Although replay was a bit crude it saved having to print loads of takes that quite obviously didn’t work for one reason or another. Also we could instantly see an assimilation of the slo-mo. Each set up would take time and you really didn’t want to have to set up a shot again having seen Rushes the following day. It’s the first time I’d ever seen video assist used in a film context. Of course it got adopted by TV commercials in a big way in the late 70’s and 80’s.
What I would say is that Chris Reeve was 6.3ft tall. Flying horizontally in a wide shot, we would have to had the camera so far back to make him appear small, we had to think of a way of achieving these shots convincingly. There’s no way we could use a miniature dummy as you couldn’t get proper arm movements or head turns etc. Enter Deep Roy and Kiran Shah both midget/dwarf actors and doubles. At just over 4 feet tall, they were perfectly proportioned physically. In specially made Superman costumes and wigs etc. at 20 feet from the lens they would look tiny. Bingo! When you look at the film again if you see a very wide shot and Superman is tiny and a long way away, then chances are it’s one of those guys.
There were some extremely elaborate flying rigs called “Gimbals” that were made specifically to support Chris’ weight whilst lying in a perfect body mould. We had a few of these for the different flying positions. Chris sometimes used to ask me to lace him up into the flying harness, which of course had to be underneath the costume and hidden. It had to be so tight! He was known as “a man of steel”. There was an element of truth to this as these counterbalanced rigs which were completely “invisible” to the camera were made out of steel. I’m no engineer but the cantilever stresses were pretty huge. Look no wires!
Besides the Flying Unit you also worked with the Model Unit – what sequences were you involved with and how was your relationship with Richard Donner?
Despite occasionally meeting Richard Donner during the course of filming, I never worked on the main unit, so didn’t come into contact with him much. What I can say is that he was a really nice guy and I had a lot of respect for him as a Director. As an AD you get to see Directors close to. In my many years as a 3rd, 2nd and 1st AD I have worked with many renowned Directors. It will come as no surprise that some were very likeable and good at their craft. Some were good Directors but frankly weren’t pleasant to work with and some were s*** Director’s and equally s*** as individuals and horrible. Dick Donner fell into the category of nice bloke and very good at what he did in my opinion.
Regarding the Model unit sequences that I remember being involved with were The Daily Planet Building scaled model with the revolving globe on the top (memory’s fading!!) and a little bit on the earthquake stuff on the Golden Gate Bridge. SFX supremo Derek Meddings and his team…..wow! I still look at that sequence of shots and find it hard to distinguish between the “live” action and models particularly when the school bus crashes through the barrier on the bridge. There were two other 2nd and flying unit scenes that I was involved with. One was the American Diner when Superman slings the nasty cocky Trucker along the counter top. The other was the Prison scene at night when Superman flies into the Compound delivering the baddies. Vic Armstrong doubled Chris as he was about 80 to 100 feet up suspended by wires on the arm of a huge crane. No air beds for this shot!
You were also present for the scenes set on the Moon for Superman II – can you provide an insight into the differences between wire flying and process flying? Which was harder to achieve?
From memory the lovely Robert Lynn was 2nd Unit Director on the sequences I did. I had worked with him before when he was a 1st AD. The wire work was good for this set as the main background was predominantly the blackness of Space with a sprinkling of twinkling Stars and maybe the odd glimpse of Earth in the distance. To create the illusion of zero gravity we were shooting high speed (slow motion). But Spacemen had to leave the surface of the moon momentarily by a couple of feet to propel themselves forward and sort of hop, as in a Moonwalk. This is where wires (piano strings) were used and connected to pelvic/hip harness (a bit like Cirque de Soleil) one wire either side. These wires would run up to a large strong coat hanger type of rig which was on pulleys attached to the studio grid which in turn would be on a rail also operated by a pulley. On a carefully timedcue two different teams of riggers behind the backing would a) lift the body (taking the weight) whilst a second or so later, the other team would literally pull the body at a good speed in the direction of travel on the grid rail. Getting the coordination and timing right to make the action look real was an art! The wires didn’t show because they were painted black and fortunately on the Moon the light comes from one direction, so no backlight catching the wires. The same was not true of other sets. One example was the burglar on the outside of the Skyscraper using limpet grabs to scale the building. Denys Coop (DoP) went to New York to shoot the background plates. He recounted later his worries at having to look through a 35mm camera viewfinder that was mounted at 90 degrees on a protruding platform several 100 feet up on a very windy roof with the tiny cars below. It’s a marvellous shot.
Cut back to A Stage in Pinewood, the large front projection screen and the camera rig on the scaffolding platform but now about 25 feet up. The plate projected in the same way as I have explained before renowned Stuntman and Double Paul Weston was testing the flying rig and the action to assimilate the burglar falling down the side of the building towards the street below. His body travel starts in close up and ends up some 50 feet away from the camera near the screen. We were at the stage of perfecting the use of the thinnest gauge of piano wire and trying out the vibrating of the wires so that they didn’t show on camera. The thin gauge would only be used by a stunt double as there was a risk of the wire kinking and snapping under the body weight of a man. To execute this action on camera Paul had to “look” as if he was falling backwards which because of the swivelling harness allowed him to pivot his whole body and go from lying horizontally as if on his front (chest facing the studio floor) to flying backwards but with his back now facing the floor. His body would flip 180 degrees in other words. This couldn’t really be shot high speed (slow mo) as the human body will naturally fall to the ground at about 120 feet per second. Well with a bit of license it meant you would probably only get a shot that lasts 3 seconds before he would come to the end of the travel rail. Remember Paul (11.5 stone probably!) is suspended on 2 very thin wires and he is about 30 feet above the extremely solid studio floor. To minimise the risks if he was to fall for any reason we put 2 layers of standard stunt boxes in a line under the travel rail and to a width of 12 feet in total. All was going well and I think it was take 2 or 3 when Paul now had got the action looking very realistic and believable. But the travel rig got snagged and stopped abruptly as Paul pivoted onto his back. One of the wires snapped! His weight was suddenly unevenly held on a single wire and he swung off centre and with undue strain on the remaining single wire this could not hold his weight and the force snapped it causing Paul to fall 30 feet to the unforgiving studio floor. Unfortunately he missed the carefully positioned boxes that would have prevented a hard landing. He did just manage to get his hands down first (instinctive reaction for a stuntman) but his head still hit the floor.
We were all in shock. I was first on the scene and he was briefly unconscious and more worryingly there was a trickle of blood from his right ear. We used to have a dedicated Standby Nurse on set. The AD in me kept calm and we called 999. Don’t forget there were no mobiles! It was a Saturday. Paul had come round but was talking gibberish. I went in the Ambulance with him to Wexham Park Hospital. The more I kept talking to him the more he kept uttering gibberish…..telling me that he “loved” me!! Doctors say he was fortunate not sustain serious injury. Because he was a very experienced stuntman his body was able to withstand the impact that would have rendered the average person disabled with a serious spinal injury. He was back working a few weeks later!
Do you remember your reaction to the finished movie? When and where did you see it and what’s your most enduring memory of working on the set?
As is customary with big movies like Superman there was a big crew showing at the Odeon Leicester Square (from memory) one Sunday morning. Of course watching the entire film end to end was great. I had several tingly moments when seeing various sequences that I had worked on all cut into the final film. Then of course there were the legendary end credits which seemed to last about 9 minutes! To see one’s name up there on a 40 foot screen did give me goosebumps. I cannot single out one overriding or enduring memory of my time on the production, other than knowing that I was a part of movie making history. Some 42 years later….people still are fascinated by the whole Superman thing. Despite the use of CGI nowadays which is of course amazing, it has to be remembered that back then we had to create many of the illusions mechanically and or with Opticals. One thing’s for sure, it wouldn’t have been nearly so much fun or challenging if it had been created using today’s computer technology. One proud memento is my production Superman watch that was presented to several crew members at the time. (see photo) Talking to other surviving crew that I have come across, not many seem to have kept theirs. I’m sure that anyone can get hold of one like this now, but it won’t have the same memorabilia value as mine! And it still works……a good old fashioned wind up watch…..no electronics involved!
What other projects have you worked on since? What are you doing now and how has the industry changed since your Superman days?
Post Superman I went onto a number of films like Dragonslayer, Yanks, Yentl, The Wall and ended up doing numerous prestige TV Commercial campaigns as a 1st AD. They were still shot on 35mm film and had sizable budgets that would be the envy of small feature films! I was bought up in a “showbiz” family. My mother was the extremely well known TV writer and subsequently Film Producer Hazel Adair. My father (not quite so famous) was the renowned TV Director Ronnie Marriott. So aged 14, I was lucky enough to go to Stage school and trained to be an Actor. Apart from a few appearances in various films and the odd TV gig, the acting business started to wane a bit for me in the late 60s early 70s. I was too old for the young parts and too young for the old parts, so I had a chance to go behind the camera and got a job as a production Runner. But I really needed an ACTT ticket (union card). They were like gold dust! Anyway it wasn’t too long before I acquired one and became a fully fledged 3rd AD.
Fast forward to the mid 80’s when I decided that having been an AD to many Directors, I figured that I had what it took to direct in my own right. Well it proved a successful decision in many ways. I have picked up some awards for my work over the years and in 1988 I directed my first 35mm feature film albeit for TV. My mother was one of the Producers! No…..nepotism did not come into play. She was a task master and I had to virtually “audition” to get the job!! It was a tight schedule and budget, filming in the UK, Rome and South Africa. Just the sort of production that needed an ex AD to direct and I was good with actors. Most recently I have been involved in the TV documentary genre both as a Director and also as a DoP. Lighting for the camera came about because I was fed up with sometimes inheriting inexperienced bolshy cameramen, when I knew I could do a better job. Sounds a bit pretentious but I had watched and worked alongside some of the greatest Cinematographers in the world so a lot rubbed off. I am still here, still working, when most people of my era are understandably retiring. It will happen one day I’m sure, but for now I still love it…..and I am still enthusiastic. I like working with the younger and often talented generation who are starting out. Btw….just to add to my CV I have directed several stage productions and produced radio commercials and the odd music CD. I have my own gigging band in which I play drums. Now that’s what you call rock and roll!
Charles Marriott – Thank you very much!!