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martedì 12 aprile 2011

The man who saved the Blue Bird. A friendly chat with Producer Paul Maslansky

Paul Maslansky has always been an eclectic producer from the early stage of his career, when he financed Micheal Reeves’ She Beast. As producer and executive, took care of such genre classics like Race with the devil, Eyewitness, Raw meat, Circle of iron and Walter Hill’s debut behind the camera Hard Times. Paul has produced also The Russia House and many other big studios films, not to mention he started up one of the most successful franchises in Hollywood history, Police Academy, that spawned six sequels. His solo venture as a director is the blaxploitation fave Sugar Hill. So I was more than happy, when he accepted to dedicate a little of his time to Kinoglazorama to speak about The Blue Bird.

Did you come up with the idea to produce an adaptation of the Blue Bird? 
No, I was involved in a later stage of the production. The idea for the movie came from Edward Lewis that was also responsible for the casting of the main stars.

So, what exactly happened?
It happened that James Coco got sick, because of the food and Ava Gardner was hill as well and had to go back to London.
The production was already in its fifth or sixth week of shooting, and everything was at a dead halt.

And you stepped in to save the day…
Alan Ladd Jr. asked me if I would have liked to go back to Russia to warm up things with a fresh start.

Back?
Right, I have been there already, for what can be considered the first major co-production between the Eastern block and a Western company, an Italian one.

This is very interesting I didn’t find anything about it…
It was 1968 and the producer Franco Cristaldi, one of the best Italian producers of all times, asked me to follow the shooting of The Red Tent. It was an USSR coproduction with his company Vides, shot on location. It was about the trip of Umberto Nobile and his dirigible at the conquer of North Pole. I spent almost an year there and got acquainted with the Lenfilm studios in Leningrad and the way to do things.

It’s the reason you got involved…
Right. Coco was so seriously hill, and had to be replaced; the whole shooting was to start again from the scratch because he played a major role in the movie (The Dog) and was almost in every scene. 
They needed someone that could get along with the locals and was familiar and trusted by the Soviets. And I was, because of my previous experience.

So you got there, and?
The main problem was that the people put in charge before, had no experience to manage a film with a crew speaking two different languages. This was the biggest issue to be worked out and the second one was food.
Taylor had hers brought from England, but the others were complaining.

What about the director?
Cukor was an incredible man, very active even if he was already in his seventies. He complained that everybody was late on set all the time, the crew but even Taylor.
We did a new schedule that pleased him a lot, and brought in a new cinematographer Freddie Young an amazing person and incredibly gifted. The previous cinematographer a Russian, Jonas Gritsius, had no experience with movies in colour and had to be replaced, even because of the language barrier between him and Cukor. Young got along very well with George.

And everything went smooth?
It did. After We started again and Gardner was back, the production had no problems. Only the first day, Taylor was late again and Cukor was very upset. I went to her hotel room and she just asked 15 minutes. I talked to her, asked her to help me and George to complete the picture. “I’m a professional” she said, and I had to worry anymore, she was just wonderful.

What about Fonda and Gardner?
I believe Ava didn’t enjoy the shooting as we did after it was started again. But she was fine.

Rumours have it that Fonda was delivering pro communism speeches to the Russian crew. Is this true or just a rumour?
Never happened after I stepped in, rumour has it she made some comments about the Vietnam war, but this was before, I never heard any of it. On the contrary Taylor was asked by the Russian Government to deliver a message to the astronauts of the first conjunct space mission Apollo-Soyuz; that just launched. An incredible moment for everybody.

The budget had skyrocket to 12 millions…
But most of it was brought in by the Russians, let’s say that in the end the picture cost was around 5 millions for  Fox.

There are lavish costumes and expensive stage constructions...
Everything was hand made. At that time, it wasn’t easy to find stuff in USSR. Like silk for instance, or some kind of light bulbs. Taylor had this beautiful crystal wand made by the prop master. Taylor was so fascinated and smashed it against something, she thought it was made of plastic, but it wasn’t.
It was made of real glass, was the only one and broke in a thousand pieces. She was so concerned, like everybody, but we had it remade by night.

And you made connections that helped you later
Yes, when I did The Russia House and one of the Police Academy. During the Red Tent shooting, I befriended Nikita Mihalkov and during the Blue Bird, Aleksandr Arshansky that was senior executive producer for the Russians. An incredible man, excellent producer. After a while, we started to have  weekly parties between Americans and Russians. They were calling us the Arshansky–Maslansky duo. Soviet technicians were fascinated by US films, because they couldn’t see that much of them; they were always asking questions.

Why the critic response was so negative, I believe that even with flows the movie it’s entertaining…
I have no idea. Maybe because at that time, everything that was coming from Russia was suspiciously regarded, even if involved us.
But I’m proud of the film, I believe it’s good and it’s a pity it’s not widely available. It matches the Shirley Temple's one for sure.

Only in Spain Fox made it available, no frills edition…
It’s a shame. I would have been of some help. I’m always available when it comes to one of my pictures.

thanks to Paul Maslansky

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