"One day Bogie came on the set said to Howard [Director Howard Hawks], 'Who pushed Taylor off the pier?' Everything stopped"
-Lauren Bacall, By Myself and Then Some
Bacall, above, is referring to the maze-like plot of The Big Sleep, in what has since become a wonderful bit of Hollywood lore, spurred in part by the response from the author of the novel when Hawks and the screenwriters inquired into the answer.
"They sent me a wire ...asking me, and dammit, I didn't know either," Chandler recalled in Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane's The Raymond Chandler Papers.
I have always resisted the temptation to take this response at face value, not sure that Chandler wasn't being cute, or whether the question was irrelevant to the plot for him. Owen Taylor's murder is just a plot device to keep detective Phillip Marlowe from dropping the case, and it clearly didn't matter to Chandler who killed him.
On one level, this story tells you everything about what is wrong with the Big Studios today. I'm not saying that the Studios in their heyday did not interfere in negative ways; indeed, much of the confusion on the plot of The Big Sleep was due to the Hays Code, which prevented the story being told as it was in Chandler's novel. However, today, some focus group would have sent this movie back to editing room based on its twisting plot, and a good deal of the fun of this noir classic would have been lost in the "fix".
Sometimes mysteries are good; other times, not so much.
Plot was something of a mystery on The Rook, and, if you ask me, it's part of its appeal. Oh, the "who-dunnit" aspect isn't all that hard to figure out, but exactly where and when "Sutheridge" may be is another matter altogether.
The plot of the film is something like this; John Abbott, a devout religious man who is serious to the point of seeming humorless, is a detective and an official from a central theocratic government. He is sent to a dreary industrial down of Sutheridge to investigate the murder of a previous female investigator. He encounters a revolution and a number of cryptic clues ( the working title of the film, "The Circle in the Square", was a reference to one of those puzzles). The story is set in an intentionally ambiguous time period, where horse-drawn carriages take people to places that have archaic versions of modern devices, such as computers, telephones and inter-office communication.
He is met in Sutheridge by the same local official who met the last investigator, Bob Brice, whose loyalties come into question during the investigation. Abbot's ultimate fate is determined by his own rigidity.
Neither writer Richard Lee Purvis or director Eran had any desire to explain the contradictions that existed in the story; rather, they reveled in them as part of a deeper philosophical discussion. This led people to either love or hate the movie, depending on how literal they were.
The pejorative term that both plots shared at one time or another is "convoluted", which often means the reviewer wasn't interested enough to figure it out, or that the film didn't entertain them enough to care.
Mysteries are good for plot, but bad for production people. Whether you are an AD or UPM, your most precious and important time is prep, where you lay the groundwork for how the movie will be structured. I previously discussed that in breaking down a script, I like to go over it enough times that I feel like I even know it better than the director. (How To Be an AD in BC)
As UPM or line producer, I start with a budget I prepare that is not only a financial plan for the movie, but a blueprint that determines all parameters of shooting.
On The Rook, I was reading this crazy script before and after long work days, working with a schedule I had no involvement with, and a budget that was more like a rough draft.
I soon learned that there were better uses for my time than trying to decipher the plot. One day on set, I was siting with Martin, our lead who played Abbott, and John, who played Brice. I asked them a question about the plot, and both admitted they had stopped considering that particular point some time previous.
There were no cables to Richard Purvis. I addressed a plot question to Richard some time after the film was shot, and his response was like one of the puzzles in the film; I got off the phone knowing less about the plot than before, if that was possible. The closest I got to an explanation of the time period was "it's a vision of the future as seen from people in the past."
As a viewer, this makes it possible for me to watch this film endless times, and the DP Zack and production designer Sebastian created a look that the Village Voice positively compared to Brazil.
As production manager, I put deep understanding aside and satisfied myself with the elements of the script that affected shooting, and making sure we had all of those.
The less satisfying mystery was the budget, and the accounting.
One of the first things I would explain to students in discussing preparing a budget is that there is no line item known as "petty cash," or at least there shouldn't be. Cash is a form of payment, like checks or credit cards, and you wouldn't create a line item for "checks", but somehow, people feel comfortable creating a catch-all category called "petty cash." A more accurate term might be "those things I can't really think about right now, but I know we'll spend it someplace." This is not to be confused with a contingency, which is, well, those other things you know will come up but you can't really think about right now.
I went about unraveling the mystery of our budget, which began with figuring out how much we had already spent, and Mr. Chandler would have been proud of the mystery there. The checkbook was a bit confusing, but I could usually put vendor or contractor's name with a line item. Credit card receipts were a little trickier, with some from places that could have been for any number of things, but this was just a matter of picking a line item.
Big costs, such as equipment, became a fun game of matching invoices, both paid and pending, with checks or credit cards. This was like the Monday NY Times Crossword Puzzle, challenging, but if you know what you're doing, it can build confidence for subsequent days, which become increasingly harder.
If these big costs were like the Monday Crossword, cash expenditures, aka petty cash, was like Saturday's NY Times Crossword, a cruel invention of the sick mind of Will Shortz where hyphenated hip-hop slang intersects with French interpretation of Greek mythology.
Eran had assured me that we had each and every petty cash receipt, and that turned out to be true. When I requested these receipts of the production coordinator and her assistant, she was quick to hand them over. Rather than the neat top sheets, numbered and listed by line item and followed by pages of receipts taped or stapled in order, what I got was two big, brown paper grocery bags, filled to the brim with streams of white paper that were, indeed, receipts. Notes written on them? Not a chance. They pretty much looked like a larger version of your night table when you empty your pocket after a long day; I was just happy there were no gum wrappers.
So, the priority was getting at least a big picture of how much was spent - Eran could certainly tell me how depleted his account was - and figuring how much we had remaining and how we were going to finish the film . I did set up a two-fold system, one for accounting for past petty cash, and another for accounting for how we would track it moving forward. The ladies of the production office became efficient versions of Bob Cratchit, assigning receipts based on a legend I provided and bringing those in question to me while also keeping the machinery of the movie, like sides and call sheets, in motion.
When you're in production, it's no time to look back, and no time to indulge in mysteries. The mystery of the plot took a back seat to making sure we had what we needed to shoot today, then tomorrow, then the day after; the mystery of where the money was spent would not be solved before we figured out how to spend the money we had left. It's not the way you draw it up on the drawing board, and it's not the way you teach people to produce, but it's the reality of making a movie under difficult circumstances. You need to have rules, but you need to be able to adapt.
For the record, I have a pretty good idea of who killed the chauffeur.
The Big Sleep - Book Store Scene
Great artists can take limitations and turn them into advantages. The Hays Code prevented writers from being sexually explicit, so the great ones found ways to to be clever and seductive in ways the censors would pass, but the audience would still enjoy. The scene linked above from The Big Sleep has always been one of my favorite examples of this - do you really need to be told what happened during the time lapse?