The Ignoble Quest for Infamy

Filming McCabe & Mrs. Miller in Vancouver

by Regan Payne

9 November 2010


That ‘Altman standard’ was critical in the very subjective debate of what makes cinema art. Auberjonois recalled Altman often saying, “Most of what I do fails, that’s what makes it art.” Beyond this, however, Vancouver at that time provided Altman the distance he required from the studio to make the most of the opportunity in front of him. Carmody confirmed, “Because of union rules, at first we weren’t permitted to do a whole lot on set. But eventually, because of where we were shooting, a lot of crew looked the other way. And Altman wanted us to do things so he could put more money on the screen.”

And so he did. McCabe looks like no other Western before or since, which was the result of what is known as flashing the film, a process of underexposing the negative to create a grainier look, considered so dangerous that no Hollywood studio would agree to be an accomplice. This look however began much earlier, as a result of Vancouver’s monotonous cloudy skies.

“He wanted to make this movie like an old Western,” cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond told me. “And Vancouver is always overcast, and it created this kind of feeling that was different. We loved that. In those traditional Westerns, the sun is always shining, and everything is beautiful – it was almost the opposite to that.”

However enough clouds stacked on top of one another can have an overly dramatic effect. “Sometimes it was so dark in the morning, even 10 o’clock, my light meter didn’t even show that light was coming from the sky. And I waited and waited, and told Robert, ‘we have to wait because there’s not any exposure’. Finally, he who is so patient, said, ‘I don’t think we can wait any longer, why don’t we just shoot this. We’ll see the dailies tomorrow, and if you don’t like it, we’ll do it again.’ When we saw it the next day, he was surprised that we got this incredible kind of quality, because of the under exposure. It was grainy, it looked like old photographs from 1800 and something. We loved it, and thought maybe we should continue doing this, because whatever we are doing is right.”

There was still the problem of finding a lab to flash the film to Altman and Zsigmond’s specifications. “There was no laboratory willing to do it, because it was dangerous to pre-expose the film. It was unheard of. Altman wanted to use the Vancouver lab. There was only one at that time, but it was a 16 mm lab, and we were shooting on 35mm anamorphic. So he talked the laboratory into buying the 35 mm equipment by paying the bill upfront.”

Zsigmond continued, “Then we could do whatever we wanted. Altman picked the percentage of flashing that he wanted and the lab did a great job. There were a couple of real geniuses there. I cannot imagine that we could have done a better job in Hollywood.”

Which is much to the point–-many of those now-iconic films of the 1970s, while distributed and owned by the major film studios, were being shot away from the traditional Hollywood setting, providing the filmmakers far more opportunity to stretch their artistic muscle. The movement coincided with the persistence of filmmakers and their collaborators to push more and more realism onto movie screens.

For decades, the Hollywood studios had come as close to perfecting a moviemaking formula as there has ever been. The back lots housed the world, literally. Cinematic landmarks were targeted not by authenticity, but rather by a director’s technological inventiveness, such as Orson Welles’ and his cinematographer Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus, or through understanding and subtly playing a script’s subtext. Studios were either slow on the uptake, or underestimated the influence of filmmakers such as Welles, Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk, or Europeans such as Jean-Pierre Melville: directors to whom the rigidity of traditional studio filmmaking was becoming increasingly absurd as the stories they wanted to tell required more and more reality.

Marlon Brando’s far more realistic approach to acting was also influencing a generation of actors, some of whom would find their way into the director’s chair by the late sixties, and become leaders of this new movement of independent cinema, such as John Cassavetes, and the recently departed Dennis Hopper.

Both Nichols’ and Altman’s films broke new territory (Art Garfunkel was the first person to show a condom on film in Carnal Knowledge), and it is debatable whether they would be the films they were had they not been filmed in Vancouver, though Zsigmond doesn’t believe so. “We could not have done it in Hollywood. We were just lucky we were at the right place at the right time, with the right weather. Everything was just working for us, even the snow storm.”

McCabe climaxes with a brilliantly staged shootout, written, according to Vilmos Zsigmond, specifically to be outside in the snow (though René Auberjonois recalls the snow being an unexpected delight, and Robert Altman exclaiming to all, “David Lean waited a year for the snow in Dr. Zhivago—this is a million dollar snow, let’s shoot!”).

Because the plot revolves around Warren Beatty’s McCabe establishing a gambling/bordello enterprise, the production had the benefit of being able to shoot in continuity, as local Vancouver carpenters, in period clothing, constructed the sets while cameras rolled.

Zsigmond recounted for me how the final sequence unfolded. “We were always expecting the snow, the scene was written for snow, it just never came. We said, ‘if the snow comes, we will go out of continuity to the ending’. We planned it that way. But we knew we could not expect snow in Vancouver all the time. When it comes, it comes, and it goes away so fast. But it never came basically.

At the very end, when we had no other things to shoot, then we had a little discussion about what are we going to do. It was cold, it was freezing, so someone suggested, ‘well, why don’t we start watering the trees and the houses, and we will have icicles on the trees and the rooftops.’ And the next morning we started to shoot the icicles. And that afternoon the snow started to fall. It was unbelievable. Just like we ordered it that way.

It snowed two days, then on the third day it stopped, and we weren’t finished the scene – the last 15-20 minutes is in snow. So we had two units going. At one point I remember, I had to basically direct where Julie Christie is in the hut at the end, while Altman was shooting Warren dying in the snow.”

Zsigmond has only returned to Vancouver for work one other time in his career, during the mid-90s for the Richard Gere, Sharon Stone marital drama Intersection. By that time, Vancouver had an industry infrastructure similar to those of L.A., New York or Toronto and the changes were obvious. “We used a lot of local members on that film. I only probably brought my gaffer [head electrician] with me because I always like to do that. But all the other crewmembers were from Vancouver. It was a much bigger industry, everything went almost like it would in Hollywood.”

To the Vancouver economists and politicians everything has unfolded as planned. And in fact, the inference itself, that Vancouver is worse off for having developed a competent film industry, is a stupid one. Of course things are better now. Industry creates jobs for hundreds if not thousands. But to the film buff, in search of classics, those films, or works of art from any medium, that inspire those who see them, seem more than remote, they seem impossible to create within the current environment.

Studios are involved in every decision, large or small, dailies are sent back to Hollywood for inspection and they have approval over every aspect of the process. Yet this is nothing new and has in fact always been the case. What seems different is the culture itself. There is a corporatism that has enveloped every aspect of our lives, and a film industry like Vancouver’s has thrived under its reign. Discipline, hard work and routine are what are needed to churn out a weekly television program, and that’s what the crews in Vancouver do. And they do it damn well.

When so much of a classic like McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s success seems to be about “catching lightning in a bottle”, as René Auberjonois described it to me, it gives pause to the likelihood it can ever happen again. For Robert Altman, a man who avoided contact with the studios as much as possible, it seems that as much as he loved Vancouver the city, it was equally the empty, creative canvas she provided that perhaps was his true mistress.

Vancouver, and its film industry and capacity, is much changed now, and Auberjonois speculated as we spoke, “Someone like Bob Altman [were he still alive] probably wouldn’t want to work in Vancouver anymore.” And therein lies the real tragedy, and perhaps the answer: if McCabe & Mrs. Miller were to be made today, it wouldn’t be made in Vancouver. An artist such as Altman or those like him, the ones we crave to create lasting, memorable images from a city like Vancouver, would seek out a fresh landscape, untouched by the Hollywood machine, upon which to create their masterworks.

Everyone I spoke to, from actors to producers to technicians, felt that the magic captured in McCabe & Mrs. Miller could certainly happen again in Vancouver; and that no level of industry or corporate greed could change that. I certainly hope they are right, but 1971 was a long time ago.

Who knows, someday soon, maybe Vancouver will get lucky.

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