Monday, October 01, 2007

GRAND PRIX - FRANKENHEIMER'S DAY AT THE RACES

by Nick Zegarac

“I feel that my job is to create an atmosphere where creative people can do their best work. In other words, I have to create an atmosphere where these people feel safe, where they feel respected, and where they feel that they can contribute.”

– John Frankenheimer

In 1966, director John Frankenheimer debuted one of the most exhilarating and immersive 70mm film experiences in modern screen history. In many ways, the film Grand Prix was a departure from the expected ‘norm’ in Hollywood’s take on auto racing. To be certain, films about racing and its unsung heroes were nothing new.

In one of filmdom’s most celebrated examples; Clark Gable exploited the, then minor, allure of Formula-1 racing while wooing Barbara Stanwyck in the potboiler, To Please a Lady (1950). Yet, if race cars appeared at all on the big screen, they were usually as backdrop – a stylish and gleaming prop, photographed against rear projection with little regard for accuracy, or to capture the reality and the experience of the actual moment on film.

At the time Grand Prix was set to go before the Cinerama cameras it was being touted in the trade papers as one of MGM’s big road show ‘landmark’ movies of the decade. By the mid-1960s, MGM – the studio that had once boasted ‘more stars than there are in heaven’- had succumbed to relentless cost-cutting brought on by an ever revolving line of replacement executives who came and went almost as quickly as their name plates could be removed from the front office doors.

Profits from, and output of, studio produced films had dwindled to less than half of what they had been a decade earlier. As a result, by 1966 each film that MGM produced assumed the responsibility to maintain that precariously balance of keeping the studio in the black, based almost solely on the success or failure of one or two big scale movies released per annum.

With Grand Prix, John Frankenheimer and MGM (the studio footing his bills) effectively moved Formula-1 racing out of that relative autonomy it had enjoyed; seen only in fuzzy black and white newspaper clippings, but now brought into the extreme and visceral focus of a genuinely nail-biting motion picture. Both a fiscal and critical success, Grand Prix earned MGM millions, temporarily staving off the inevitable demise that would become the studio’s final act before its sad and hostile corporate takeover.
Determined, as he was, to capture a Cinerama experience of the actual 1966 race on film, Frankenheimer allowed for the insertion of fictional characters and a compelling back story that, for many a racing enthusiast since, has served as a snap shot and time capsule for the end of that transitional period, when Formula One (F-1) racing left its ‘independent’ roots and became a worldwide commercial phenomenon.


THE FORMULA
of FORMULA ONEGrand Prix motor racing originally began in France in 1894. Quickly, it escalated in appeal from a simple vehicle race into an extreme test of physical endurance for both driver and car. Innovations in automotive design ever increased the stamina of both throughout the early part of the 20th century, and by 1920 spectators had already seen records of 100mph readily challenged and broken.

Despite these advances, Formula One racing circa the early 1960s had very much retained that elusive quality of belonging to a quiet inbred sect for true thrill seekers and minor celebrity champions. Driving vehicles that, by today’s standards were perilously unsafe, with very little control over breaks and grip – and at speeds topping over 150mph, F-1 drivers were amongst the most honored and respected sportsmen, at least within their chosen profession. This gregarious brotherhood of wild and crazy personalities bred its own mythological characters; all under a sustained camaraderie of loveable and flashy expertise being tested, matched and outperformed on the race track.

It was the Cooper Car Company’s evolution in performance – brought on by the relocation of F-1 engines behind the driver - instead of in front – that began this new era in racing. Within a few short years, rear engine design had become the accepted standard and, by the mid-60s, the 1 ½ liter engine had given way to a deluxe 3 liter model, adding to the complexity of engineering.

In this pre-commercial era of F-1 driving, cars were primarily built by individuals – not car companies; Ferrari being the one exception to this rule. F-1 racer Jack Brabham, as example, built the car that won him the 1966 Grand Prix, the year the fictional Pete Aaron (James Garner) took home the trophy in the film, Grand Prix.

The men who designed these vehicles were interested in only one criteria of performance: speed. It was a recipe for disaster. In excess of 180mph, and on race courses that had not been designed with such velocities in mind – let alone properly maintained between races – F-1 drivers of this ‘golden period’ owed much more to the unhinged daredevils of the early 1920s than the Jeff Gordon’s of today. In less than capable hands, no aspiring wunderkind could hope to compete. Under a seasoned veteran, one could ostensibly at least hope to finish the race alive.

If racing displayed the most foolhardy of general road conditions, it also cultivated a distinct roster of rugged personalities behind the wheel. Total originals like Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Phil Hill and Bob Bondurant became enigmatic emcees of the sport – shiny superstars fueled by a love affair with their cars and overwhelming machismo. There was a sense of personal investment in these men – a commitment that far outweighed the dangerous aspects of their chosen profession.
Though love of craft may have resulted in F-1 cars of this vintage bearing a more esthetically pleasing outward appearance this photogenic quality came at a great expense to life and limb. The lack of uniform fabrication of these vehicles on a mass scale – with all the prescreening and crash-testing that occurs today during the design stages - yielded to a virtual litany of guaranteed mechanical failures during every racing season. Some were minor disappointments. Most, however, proved fatal.

For example, one of F-1’s most celebrated champions, Sir Stirling Moss broke both his back and legs when the wheel of his Lotus came off at 150mph. Moss survived the ordeal and continued to race, eventually racking up 525 competitions, all of them without the benefit of a seatbelt. The reason for this latter omission seemed prudent at the time; a wipeout almost always involved the car catching fire; hence a driver needed to escape his vehicle quickly – if, in fact, he could do so at all.
Today, this lack of general safety seems utterly appalling. Yet, in the climate of competition, and, without the luxury of professional sponsorship, this absence of common sense is almost forgivable. In point of fact, safety had never been an issue in Formula-1. The cramped nature of each car’s thin skeletal metal cocoon, that separated its human element from flashes of speeding pavement only inches below, trapped the driver in an aluminum skin encompassed by highly flammable reserves of fuel. Roll bars – designed to protect the driver in the very real event of a wipe out – were often lower than the driver’s own head.

With such disregard for driver safety and the increasingly severe and unpredictable state of racing conditions, F-1 racing practically guaranteed a few men would die each season. Those odds exponentially grew with each year that a driver remained accident free. For example – ‘veterans’ of the sport had little more than five years of experience behind them. Titans could proudly claim that they had survived ten years with life threatening injuries as their badges of courage and honor. Reporters assigned to cover these races often focused more intensely on the casualties, rather than the survivors – or even the winners, for that matter. After all, disaster sold copy.

JOHN FRANKENHEIMER
- A CAREER

At the start of Grand Prix – the movie, director John Frankenheimer could have so easily chosen to open his fictional story with various shots of his actors preparing for the fictional race. He did not. Instead, Frankenheimer used legitimate shots of crowds and actual F-1 drivers, mechanics and pit crew preparing for the 1966 Monte Carlo race. At once, the genius and mystery behind his storytelling prowess is established. As an audience, we are pressed to the question; Is this a movie or is this reality?

Frankenheimer had always exercised a penchant for capturing the realities of life within that strained confine of predigested fiction that is Hollywood film making. In his search for reality on the set of Grand Prix, Frankenheimer broke new ground – introducing F-1 racing to the widest international audience it had ever known until that moment in its history, and, in Technicolor, stereo and 70mm Cinerama the experience proved an exhilarating wonderment to behold.Born on February 19, 1930, John Frankenheimer had initially toyed with the prospect of becoming a professional tennis player. Though his interest in the movies would eventually surpass this early pursuit, another real love for the young man was racing. “I learned early on that I lacked the genuine skill required to become a pro,” Frankenheimer would later muse.

Yet, his general fascination for the automobile remained reticent, if in the back of his mind. During WWII, Frankenheimer honed in his talents with a camera as part of the Motion Picture Squadron for the Air Force – a tenure that directly launched his career in television in 1953 – directing the ‘You Are There’ series for CBS, under the guidance of Sidney Lumet.

Frankenheimer’s first filmic endeavor, The Young Stranger (1957), was a hateful experience, only partly for the fact that unlike television, he had been suddenly forced to work with only one camera at his disposal.

“I became a director at twenty-four…” he would later muse, “…which is probably pretty good (except that) everybody thought I was an inexperienced kid who didn’t know what the hell I was doing. The only way I could get it done was to just say (in a commanding tone) ‘Do it!’…and I’ve never stopped that.”

Frankenheimer’s disillusionment on The Young Stranger considerably impacted his career. He remained absent from film work from 1954 to 1960, concentrating instead within his comfort zone on television, accruing152 live television shows to his name.

In 1961, Frankenheimer once again took a chance on films – this time with The Young Savages. The experience proved so rewarding, it effectively launched Frankenheimer on a distinctive and highly profitable career in movies. He was both acknowledged and respected primarily for his subtly in expressing complex philosophical ideas and social issues in an uncomplicated and highly entertaining way.

His biggest successes prior to Grand Prix materialized with a pair of superb political thrillers; 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate and 1964’s Seven Days in May. Having already proved he could do witty – Frankenheimer next decided that it was time for him to try for ‘gritty.’ After all, there was no subtly to Formula-1 racing.

GRAND PRIX
– THE RACE BEGINS

“The idea was to put the audience in the car!” – John Frankenheimer

Actor Steve McQueen had always been Frankenheimer’s first choice for the part of American driver, Pete Aaron. Initially, McQueen had expressed a genuine interest in making Grand Prix. Unfortunately, for Frankenheimer – he sent assistant Eddie Lewis in his stead to iron out the contractual negotiations. Reportedly, McQueen took an instant dislike to Lewis on sight, thereafter dropping out of the project. The part of Pete Aaron went to James Garner instead.
Garner always felt he had been foisted on Frankenheimer’s good graces by the studio who, after several solid efforts felt confident in his box office clout. Though director and star eventually fell into a syncopated rhythm of working together, Garner would later muse that Frankenheimer ran roughshod over most of the cast, including him.

In service to Frankenheimer’s quest for authenticity, the rest of Grand Prix’s star roster was rounded out by an international cast; including French matinee idol Yves Montand (as introspective driver and ladies man Jean-Pierre Sarti), Japan’s Toshiro Mifune (as automotive designer Izo Yamura), England’s Brian Bedford (Scott Stoddard), Italy’s Antonio Sabato (ego driven, Nino Barlini) and Eva Marie Saint (fashion writer, Louise Frederickson).

The one cheat in Grand Prix – in other words, the only aspect of its production that was not in keeping with Frankenheimer’s ascribed pursuit of exact recreation - stemmed from his decision to use Formula-3 cars outfitted to look like Formula-1 racers; a choice made more for consideration of where and how to mount the weighty Cinerama cameras rather than for mere artistic license. In the film, these replacement vehicles are indiscernible in either appearance or performance to their F-1 counterparts, so the cheat – if necessary, is nevertheless forgivable.

Meanwhile, principle cast – except for Garner - were remanded into the care of Jim Russell’s racing school for an intense three week training session on how to drive the hairpin turns and twists of each course in the circuit. Frankenheimer absolutely refused to use doubles during these races, though he was eventually ‘convinced’ to accept Russell’s recommendation that actor Brian Bedford was hopelessly out of his element. He simply could not learn to shift gears. Aside: The Grand Prix at Monte Carlo alone requires no less than 250 gear shifts! As a result, professional racer Phil Hill doubled for Bedford in the film, wearing dark goggles and a face mask.

As for Garner; he was assigned F-1 champion Bob Bondurant as his driving instructor. The two spent a month driving various professional cars at Willow Springs, at the end of which Bondurant gave a glowing review of his student’s capabilities: “If he is in a real race he would have been able to beat several drivers. In Formula-1 that’s saying a lot!”

As cast continued to hone their racing craft, Frankenheimer was enduring a bit of negative press at Monte Carlo. The director’s penchant for doing things his own way (some would suggest ‘the hard way’), coupled with a certain dispensation for the niceties and his own maniacal quest for total perfection, circulated the rumor and buzz that Frankenheimer could be counted on to be utterly rude towards cast and crew.

In an interview conducted at the time, Frankenheimer publicly apologized if his gregariousness had leant itself to such interpretation. But behind the scenes, he continued to craft his production according his own likes and with the same clear-eyed sense of determination that had been misinterpreted as ‘rude.’

In retrospect, this snap assessment of Frankenheimer’s general demeanor seems quite unfair. After all, Frankenheimer was an artist, and artists are regularly allotted a certain margin for temperament. Yet, even prior to rekindling the reputation for being difficult, Frankenheimer quickly discovered a genuine and growing animosity towards his involvement.

“Everbody was skeptical about another movie being made about racing,” Frankenheimer confided many years later, “As a matter of fact, Ferrari wanted nothing to do with it.”
The rebuke from this automotive designer and manufacturer is significant – since without Ferrari’s participation, Grand Prix lacked that air of authenticity indigenous to F-1 racing that Frankenheimer so desperately wanted to include in his film.

But Frankenheimer was also encountering skepticism from professional racers who had already decided and misperceived that Hollywood had decided to horn in and cheapen the sport. The one Formula-1 racer on Frankenheimer’s side was Carroll Shelby, who proved to be the lynch pin in securing drivers Dan Gurney and Phil Hill to a two year exclusivity contract. Eventually, pro drivers Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren were drafted into service to add more authenticity to the proceedings.

Still, the grumbling continued. After all, allowing Frankenheimer’s crew to shoot key sequences along the circuit just hours before the actual race, meant less time for the real mechanics and drivers to test the course prior to the real thing. The Monte Carlo shoot was further complicated by a minor internal feud between the two ‘owners’ of this coastal principality; with both the Onasis and the Grimaldi families quietly refusing the director access to portions of the streets necessary to shoot the race on the same day.

For the most part, Frankenheimer kept his cool throughout these minor gripes and groans, although at one point, the film’s star, James Garner had unkind words of his own to pass along to Monte’s shop keepers. The incident began innocently enough with a negotiation between Frankenheimer and a small band of local shop keepers.

The production unit manger had paid compensation to them all to stay indoors and keep their shops closed while Frankenheimer restaged portions of the race for the benefit of close ups and in-car shots. However, upon further consideration, a few of these owners felt that more remuneration was in order.

Meanwhile, Garner – who had been dunked into the Mediterranean and loaded onto a boat for a key sequence, was quietly freezing himself in a corner. After thirty minutes of this stalemate between Frankenheimer and the shop keepers, Garner ordered his boat back to shore, whereupon he made it quite clear in no uncertain terms that unless the shop keepers cleared the premises immediately, he was prepared to start tossing each and every one of them into the Mediterranean.

As the actual Grand Prix got underway, Frankenheimer found yet another form of opposition brewing from the local officials in Monte Carlo. His cameraman, John Stevens had been outfitted on a rig inside an Alouette-3 helicopter for aerial photography. But the pursuit of cars around the difficult terrain and winding streets necessitated the copter swooping down on crowds at very severe and dangerous angles. Publicly, Frankenheimer instructed the pilot and Stevens to remain more removed from the action – then, in private, demanded they both come as close as possible to the spectacle of it all: the result, some of the most breathtaking racing footage ever captured on film.To stage the initial horrific accident that cripples fictional character Scott Stoddard, Frankenheimer and special effects man, Milton Rice came up with the inspired notion of removing the engine from one of the cars, creating a mock up with a dummy on board, then firing the car from a hydrogen canon. The final effect proved startlingly real. However, there is a postscript of irony pertaining to this event but removed from the actual film.

During the planning stages for this catastrophic wreck, Frankenheimer had walked the Monte Carlo course with F-1 driver, Lorenzo Bandini to make inquires as to where on the actual course such an accident would be most likely to occur. Bandini prophetically directed Frankenheimer’s attention to ‘the Dog Leg’; a perilous twisting stretch of road that would claim his life two years later under an almost identical set of circumstances as depicted in the film.

Immediately following wrap up on the Monte Carlo location, Frankenheimer rushed to complete what would ultimately become his ‘minor miracle.’ Frenetically cutting together the first thirty minutes of the film, including its racing footage, the director telephoned Ferrari with an invitation to a private screening of the assembled sequence.

Though the word on high was at first as cold as the initial reception, Ferrari eventually relented to the request after Frankenheimer, a projectionist and all the necessary equipment were flown out to Ferrari’s estate for a private screening. Any apprehensions Frankenheimer may have had going into the screening were immediately quashed after the house lights came up.
Not only was Ferrari overwhelmingly impressed with the footage and Frankenheimer’s direction, but the wily automotive pioneer immediately provided the film crew with complete access to his facilities and the right to use the Ferrari name in the rest of his production. At last Grand Prix had the official seal of authenticity that Frankenheimer had hoped for. It would be the last bit of positive news for the rest of the film shoot.