The Ignoble Quest for Infamy: Filming McCabe & Mrs. Miller in Vancouver

Regan Payne

Forty years on, McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains Vancouver’s cinematic benchmark. By the time McCabe rolled into production, M*A*S*H had made Robert Altman a star, and he returned to Vancouver with his core team to create a Western like no other in film history.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Director: Robert Altman
Studio: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 1971-06-24

With Smallville slated to air its final episode sometime in the first half of 2011, the Vancouver film industry will once again have its antennae in upright position, probing the cinematic landscape for its next thoroughbred: that rare breed of production that holds some level of artistic merit, as well as develops a global fan base, thereby creating work for hundreds of local actors and technicians for years to come. Fingers crossed, it will be outside the sci-fi genre. Since the '90s there has always been one: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, and Smallville (if one includes local fare such as The Beachcombers, the track record dates back to the 1970s).

The above list immediately propels two thoughts into the frontal cortex: one, the Vancouver film industry has been extremely lucky, and two, they are all television series.

While luck certainly plays a role, Vancouver crews are damn hard workers, and everyone thinks so. Over the few decades the film industry has thrived in Hollywood North, Vancouver crews have developed a global reputation as some of the best in the world. Productions thoroughly enjoy shooting north of the border, and not simply because Vancouver can double for practically anywhere in the world and it’s only a two and a half hour flight back to L.A. Vancouver crews have a work ethic that is second to none.

Juxtaposed with other cities, Vancouver amounts to cinema’s land of plenty. In France, crews only work eight hours, and if more are needed to complete a scene, the level of pleading, kicking and screaming required resembles a John McEnroe tennis match from the early eighties, and more often than not, falls completely on deaf ears.

A Vancouver-based producer recently regaled me with the story of working on a TV movie filmed partly in Vancouver, partly in Miami. After shooting in Vancouver, the production was in a swift rhythm of 25 set-ups a day (a set-up refers to each distinct camera position over the course of a filming day. TV movies typically average 25 a day, movies and TV series average 30 and above). However, once the production had shifted zip codes to the Sunshine State, they were lucky to reach 20 in a shooting day, and the crew, unbeknownst that the man milling around them was a producer from Vancouver, complained to no end about the pace, schedule and expectations.

With a measure of luck and a great deal of determination then, the industry in Vancouver has thrived. However the belief that the most memorable productions of the last few decades are television series, and not the Mount Olympus of cinema, the feature film, could not be more accurate.

A quick look over the industry film lists of the last several years provides no end of well known features that have been committed to print on Vancouver’s ebullient shores, but the search for classics is akin to the quest for the much promised, low income housing among the newly constructed Olympic Village: simply not present, no matter how hard one squints.

With such a track record of sometimes expensive, though often forgettable fare, one would think that the Vancouver film industry in the 1970s was established by the fading Italian schlock horror genre, or Russ Meyer, arm in arm with a bevy of buxom blondes, ready for their, ahem, close-up. However, in 1971, two features were being shot in Vancouver within striking distance of one another; both, now, considered classics of the resurgent American independent cinema movement of the 1970s.

Comedian turned filmmaker Mike Nichols’ (The Graduate, Working Girl, Closer) was busy shooting scenes with Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, and Candice Bergen at what was then known as Folkestone Studios in West Vancouver for his much ballyhooed Carnal Knowledge. A stone’s throw away, Robert Altman and his personnel were busy constructing Presbyterian Church, an actual Old West mining town for his period Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, starring real-life couple at the time, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. With Altman’s death in 2006, the great director’s career has been the subject of much conjecture and analysis, and with each passing year more and more cinema historians, collaborators and film buffs are ranking McCabe as his very best. This from the man who helmed the original MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park, to name a few. René Auberjonois, who was the original Father Mulcahy in MASH and collaborated with Altman on many of his early pictures including McCabe, told me over Skype one recent morning that in a career spanning five decades and counting, McCabe is the best film he’s ever been in. “That is the one that will be on my tombstone,” he chuckled.

British Columbia-born producer James Margellos, who also worked with Altman on many of his early films, including McCabe, was instrumental in the director initially discovering Vancouver’s exterior, as well as interior, beauty for an earlier Altman picture.

Margellos had bounced around L.A. and Toronto, working as location manager and production manager on a couple of movies. “When I returned to L.A., I met an assistant editor that wanted to direct and he had a fairly decent screenplay, and his friend, a stuntman, was going to star in it. He also had a person with some money that wanted to get involved. We were all very naive. The money person said that the first thing we needed to do was get an office”.

The film industry is littered with stories beginning in a similar vein. Soon, the backer backed out, and Margellos, as “Producer”, was left to tell their landlord they would not be able to pay their rent, now or ever. The landlord in question, a certain Mr. Aldrich, like everyone in L.A., was also in the film business. After some initial awkwardness, the two began chatting about their chosen profession, and Aldrich told Margellos he had a picture that was to film in London, and he was not looking forward to the travel, nor working that far from home.

Margellos asked what the film required. “A place that rains a lot,” his landlord replied. After a quick description of his hometown, the two parted.

A few days later, Margellos received an 8 a.m. wake up call. “My landlord was on the line and he said he was calling from Vancouver and said it was perfect for his project and asked me what I did, I told him I was a production manager. He asked me to call his partner right away and get a plane ticket to Vancouver and get there that same day. That was the first time I knew that our former landlord’s name was Robert Altman, not Aldrich. That picture was That Cold Day in the Park, the film Altman made before MASH. “

By the time McCabe rolled into production, two years later, M*A*S*H had made Altman a star, and he returned to Vancouver with his core team to create a Western like no other in film history. “Bob loved Vancouver,” Auberjonois told me. In fact, Auberjonois recalled Tommy Thompson, Altman’s longtime producing partner, telling him back then, “The only problem with making in a film in Vancouver, is there’s no one to bribe.” The implication being that movie productions often find themselves needing to grease some palms to meet their filming requirements, and Vancouver’s film landscape circa 1970 was virtually palm-less, so to speak.

Among Altman’s core team was cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who thinks back on McCabe in these terms: “ Even after all these years, I was never in a more wonderful, beautiful environment than in that movie”. Not exactly faint praise when one considers that Zsigmond won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well filling his dossier with such cinematic achievements as Deliverance, The Deer Hunter and The Black Dahlia. His latest effort, to be released this Fall, is Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

When we spoke from his home in Los Angeles, Zsigmond reminisced fondly about the few months he spent filming in Vancouver, recalling wistfully the view from his rented apartment overlooking Horseshoe Bay, where he’d watch the ferries come and go over morning coffee. The discussion that followed was practically a dissertation on creating a cinematic classic, from a master of his craft. And like all art that is considered historically valuable, the story of how it became so follows no pattern that can be bottled, copyrighted and sent to the factory floor for mass assembly.

“Every day was a challenge, because sometimes you didn’t know what you would be shooting the next day.” Altman was famous for his liberal use of the script he had commissioned. So much so, that Ring Lardner, who wrote and subsequently won the Oscar for his screenplay for MASH, apparently viewed his lack of recognizing Altman’s work and re-drafting of his script as his biggest professional regret.

Zsigmond’s recount of McCabe appears typical of the Altman experience. “The day that we started the movie and got the script, that was not the movie we ended up with. They were writing every night: he, and Warren Beatty, and Julie Christie. They were writing every night to make things better.”

This methodology of unencumbered artistic freedom bled into all areas of production. The actors were encouraged to build, and live in the shacks, huts and temporary domiciles their characters occupied. Don Carmody, now a producer of such films as Chicago, as well as last year’s Genie winner for Best Picture (Canada’s top film prize), Polytechnique, earned his first film credit on McCabe as an unpaid production assistant, often driving Julie Christie around the city while attending film school. “It was my very first on-set experience. I didn’t know what to expect. At first I thought it was very professional, but years later came to realize that it was sort of anything but. Pretty standard for Altman though, I gather.”

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