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


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.”

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.