Magazine article American Cinematographer

A Peek under the Circus Tent

Magazine article American Cinematographer

A Peek under the Circus Tent

Article excerpt

A life under the Big Top had always been my childhood ambition. Only my aversion to carrying a bucket and shovel - the apprentice's tools of the trade - had prevented me from running away to join the circus in my youth. As an adult, while I still had fantasies of circus life, my new ambition was a desire to direct feature films.

Last year, when Tom Wilhite, a former vice president of Disney Pictures, approached me about shooting a feature film backstage at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1 knew Fd been presented with the chance of a lifetime. I could realize my boyhood dream while fulfilling my adult goal.

There were a few hitches in the deal, though, and they were not insignificant. First, Wilhite wanted the focus of the film to be on Irvin FeId and Kenneth FeId, owners of the circus. I was at once faced with the potentially tough problem of making a pair of businessmen appear to be as interesting as the man on the flying trapeze. The second hitch was speed. The 113th edition of the circus was heading into rehearsal in one short week - not a lot of lead time for my producer, Leslie McNeil, and I to prepare our work. The third hitch was the bottom line. There was going to be very little money. The budget, in fact was ridiculous.

We were enthusiastic but apprehensive. Translating the thrill of the circus onto film might seem an easy job, but doing it within the constraints of time, money and a predetermined viewpoint was definitely going to be a challenge.

We set off for Venice, Florida, site of circus winter quarters, with a crew of two - Roger Grange assisting with the camera, and Robby Robinson handling the sound. We packed my i6mm Aaton LTR which Guy Genin of Les Zellan Ltd. had converted to super 16mm and rented 16mm and 25mm Zeiss Superspeed lenses. I had my 75mm Nikon 1.4 lens collimated to the camera along with a Nikon 180mm 2.8 lens. I also brought Kodak 7253 stock and my antique CM^sub 3^ Cameflex. I had been advised to cover long shots in 35mm, especially since I was pushing my i6mm stock to ASA 500.

We arrived in Venice and were introduced to Irvin and Kenneth FeId. Leslie and I were relieved to find them both direct, professional and accommodating. We were later informed that Irvin FeId had a show business history that went far beyond the circus. He had been instrumental in bringing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the United States. It was also Irvin FeId who had booked Buddy Holly into the Apollo Theatre in Harlem - a move that may have turned out to be the most interesting, if not the greatest show on earth.

After meeting the Felds, we came to the conclusion that the best way to communicate their power and total involvement with every facet of their work would be to show them as reflected by the people of the circus. We wanted to reveal how the circus was pulled together before it was sent on the road. We decided that the color, the pressure, the highs and the heartbreaks of circus life would tell the story of the Felds and their relentless attention to detail.

Leslie and I determined that the standard documentary "interview and talking heads" approach would flatten the potential excitement of the film. We chose instead to shoot the Felds and the performers as they interacted with each other. The film crew would be the "fly on the wall," observing but not participating. We also decided to avoid the crutch of a narration and take on the discipline of making the story tell itself. To me, documentary means using every aspect of the film process, not just collecting interview footage for the director.

During the initial rehearsal period, we let everyone get used to the fact that we were around and shooting. We ran film and sound on virtually anything that moved and amassed a lot of colorful footage, but there was not enough emotional substance to really hold it together. We could not afford sync dailies, but we knew the results were far too lean for the kind of story we wished. …

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