There is a moment in the 1975 Otto Preminger film Rosebud where Peter O’Toole— after being blindfolded—travels by plane to a remote cave to parlay with the terrorist leader Sloat (played by Richard Attenborough) and tries to convince Sloat to let three hostages go in exchange for Israel-Palestine peace talks. Attenborough responds that peace talks are not what he is after, “Oh my plans go much farther than helping the Palestinians, this is the beginning of jihad, a holy war, and I have been chosen to regain Arabia for all the faithful.” Forty years later it’s a chilling moment, and the scene itself has everything you need to understand the characters, their motivations, and the truth that the film tries to reveal. It is the only scene in Rosebud to do all these things. Filmmaking is an art form composed of innumerable aspects. It involves hundreds of people, takes months at a time, and there are thousands of variables that can bring the house down and cost the studio millions of dollars. Rosebud is—pardon the cliché—the Hindenburg of films. Preminger—who had directed 33 films at the time and twice been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director—started the downward trajectory when he decided to hire his son Erik to write the screenplay. Erik was the product of an affair between Preminger and a burlesque dancer named Gypsy Rose Lee, and the director had little interaction with his son during the first 18 years of his life. Erik first learned who his father was while he was serving in the Army.
“I didn’t know much about him. Exodus was playing at the post theater so I thought I’d better see it.”
Rosebud tells the story of five wealthy young women on vacation aboard a luxury yacht, who are kidnapped and held for ransom by a sect of the Palestinian Liberation Army led by a disgruntled Englishman. An undercover CIA agent—played by Peter O’Toole (after Robert Mitchum was fired for drinking on the job)—is tasked with their rescue. The journey takes him from Juan-les-Pins on the Côte d’Azur to Corsica, Paris, Germany, and Israel. Using Rosebud as our perfect specimen of dysfunction, we examine 50-plus years of film history with five films under the governing dictates that inform the most interesting location stories: writing, technical acrobatics, geopolitical strife, occult happenings, and cast and crew experiencing dangerous situations.
You Died in the First Draft but You Came Back in the Fourth
There are directors who tell you that the fate of a movie is in the hands of the screenwriter, and there are directors who tell you that the screenplay doesn’t matter in the least and it is entirely up to the actors and their director to bring life to the story. Either way you look at it, the script is where you work out the most basic qualities and motivations of your characters. Rosebud got this wrong from the start. Writer and filmmaker Theodore Gershuny documented his experiences trailing along with Otto Preminger and his staff during the making of Rosebud. He writes of the first time he read the screenplay: “The central themes of media manipulation and the danger to Israel had dwindled. The threat had shifted mostly to the unmemorable bunch of rich girls. Their galley scene used up four pages just to show they couldn’t cook. One resented them for slowing the story and taking screen time at the expense of the world.”
The Trouble with You Is, You Have a Case of Self-Induced Hysteria Every Time You Hear the Word ‘Existentialism’
No one person can anticipate everything that might go wrong during shooting or indeed, in life. The best you can do is arm yourself with some techniques to deal with the inevitable when it arrives. Legendary drinker Robert Mitchum was fired in the early stages of production on Rosebud while filming in Corsica. After throwing back the mirto well into the night, he walked on set at four in the morning cursing Preminger for waking him up so early. In Gershuny’s account of the altercation, Preminger said, “Bob, I won’t shake your hand. If I let you go, I’ll have to sue you for every cent—”
“You want me to go, huh?” Mitchum replied, “Okay! I’m going! That’s it!”
A minute after he was gone, Preminger radioed the production office and, without pausing for pleasantries, instructed, “I want all the material—no, please, listen to me—I want all the contractual material with Mitchum and all the material on everyone else we thought about for the part. Everything…” In a move that is both astounding and further proves Satan himself was meddling from beyond the set of Rosebud—Peter O’Toole was cast to replace Mitchum in the same day. O’Toole—a rabble rousing guzzler himself—is said to have once stated, while looking back at his drinking years, “I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica.” Another reputed souse John Cassavetes, funded, wrote, and directed Shadows in 1959. Shot entirely on a 16mm handheld camera in the streets of New York, the film represents, for many, the birth of American Independent cinema. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times reviewed Shadows in 1961: “When you realize that Shadows, which opened at the Embassy Forty-sixth Street yesterday, was shot without benefit of a screenplay, without a word of dialogue written down, without a commanding director to tell the actors precisely what to do—only to help them to ‘improvise’ their performances—it’s amazing there’s a film here at all.”
This Ain’t No Disco, Ain’t No Country Club Either
While Rosebud was filming in Paris, O’Toole received a note addressed “to the alleged Irishman Peter O’Toole,” criticizing the film and purporting to be a bomb threat from the Irish Republican Army. The cast and crew were evacuated and O’Toole disappeared. It was revealed later that the film critic Kenneth Tynan had written the note as a joke. O’Toole, upon learning this information, traveled to Tynan’s apartment with two of the film’s crew members to beat some sense into the critic. Speaking to The Daily Mail, Tynan admitted, “I was even kicked in the groin.” Yes, the IRA is terrifying in their own right, but the Rosebud cast was never actually in harm’s way—this cannot be said for the makers of The Life of Wu Xun. The 1950 biopic portrays the eponymous Chinese education innovator who begged for money most of his life, eventually using the funds to open schools offering free education. After the film’s release, The Life of Wu Xun was denounced by the newly instated Mao regime. May 20, 1951, in a People’s Daily editorial, Mao Zedong wrote: “The question raised by [The Life of Wu Xun] is fundamental in nature. A fellow like [Wu Xun], living as he did towards the end of the Ching Dynasty in an era of great struggle by the Chinese people against foreign aggressors and domestic reactionary feudal rulers, did not lift a finger against the feudal economic base or its superstructure; on the contrary, he strove fanatically to spread feudal culture and, in order to gain a position for this purpose previously beyond his reach, he fawned in every way on the reactionary feudal rulers—ought we to praise such disgusting behavior? How can we tolerate praising it to the masses, especially when such praise flaunts the revolutionary banner of ‘serving the people’ and when the failure of revolutionary peasant struggles is used as a foil to accentuate the praise?” Life of Wu Xun became the first film to be banned in China. Wu Xun’s corpse was dug up, put on trial, torn to pieces, and lit on fire, and Director Sun Yu’s character was defamed. He made only a few more films during the remainder of his life. The reputations of both Wu Xun and Sun Yu were belatedly restored a decade after Mao Zedong’s death.
I Left My Heart in the Ruins of Hatra
Firings, drunken actors, an inept screenplay—outside of the behind-the-scenes happenings in Rosebud, the film is also known as Kim Cattrall’s first film. Cattrall played “Joyce” one of the five kidnapped girls. She would, of course, go on to play Samantha in Sex and the City, but not before another little-known role in The Hardy Boys TV series. She appeared in a two-part episode entitled “The Voodoo Doll I & II,” in which she played the beautiful but—having lifted the wallets of the Hardy’s straight out of their polyesters—dubious assistant to the demonic Dr. Dove, a New Orleans high priest of voodoo. Hijinks ensue. The Exorcist, Warner Brothers’ highest grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation) was made so in part because of the stories of unnatural happenings on location during filming. Director William Friedkin and the cast went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the authenticity of the film. Did they, in fact, meddle in the supernatural? The archeological dig site that opens the film was the actual dig site at Nineveh. In a scene where Father Karras visits a mental institution, many of the people seen are mental patients. Mercedes McCambridge, who performed the voice of the demon, swallowed raw eggs, chain-smoked, and even came out of sobriety to alter her voice—but the alleged deaths of nine people, and a fire that destroyed every part of the set except Regan’s bedroom, marred the production of the film. The legends are well known, but William O’Malley—who played Father Dyer and is an actual priest in real life—is said to have insisted that 80% of the film is true, only the color of the vomit and the child’s gender were changed. In the wake of the film Bill Graham maintained a real demon inhabited the celluloid of the film: Conduct attributed to The Exorcist viewings include; fainting, vomiting, banishment to mental institutions, and at least one miscarriage.
It’s a Cold World Blood... No Mercy
The reality of shooting a film about a Palestinian terrorist organization with a Jewish director in Israel was not lost on the Rosebud crew. Gershuny records this conversation during the third month of a punishing shooting schedule:
“Don’t forget,” Said an Israeli, “we cannot compete with the French coast. This is a country at war.”
Work and war. One’s heart sank before the distance to be covered, even in that tiny country. The joy finally seeped out of the project there in Tel Aviv. Days began at dawn and ended after dark, in the director’s suite. The script had spread locations over the country.
The film Colors (1988) portrayed another kind of war that was happening on the streets of South Central L.A. in the mid-80s. In Colors, Director Dennis Hopper focused on the Crips and the Bloods and used actual gang members as extras during shooting, two of whom were shot during filming, apparently unrelated to the production. Los Angeles Police Department helped in this mission, according to Don Cheadle, who played gang leader Rocket, local police were picking up gang bangers and giving them the choice of acting or prison. Additionally, Sean Penn—a committed method actor—became so engaged in his role as a C.R.A.S.H. police officer that he punched an extra on set for taking pictures of him and spent a month in jail.
The movie business is a deeply superstitious animal. Recently, the angel of misfortune visited Martin Scorsese on the set of his newest film, Silence, where two men were injured and one died after the ceiling of the Chinese Culture and Movie Center in Taipei collapsed. Perhaps this is part of what captivates us about film: There is so much can go wrong and so much at stake, we almost love the behind the scenes stories more than the ones on the silver screen.
Quotes and images from Soon to Be A Major Motion Picture: The Anatomy of a Big-Budget Multimillion-Dollar Disaster by Theodore Gershuny © Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. 1982.