Veronica Cartwright Talks About ‘The Right Stuff’ at New Beverly Cinema

The Right Stuff movie poster

Filmmaker Brian McQuery asked New Beverly Cinema to program it, and his wish came true on July 4, 2013 when the revival theater screened “The Right Stuff” in honor of its thirtieth anniversary. Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction book on the Mercury Seven astronaut program and Chuck Yeager was not a box office success when it first came out, but it did find its audience on video, cable and Digital. Seeing it again on the big screen was a real treat, and the audience got an even bigger one when McQuery welcomed actress Veronica Cartwright to the stage.

Cartwright played Betty Grissom, wife to Gus Grissom who was the second American to fly into outer space. Gus’ flight, however, ended on a controversial note after he landed in the ocean and the hatch on his spacecraft suddenly exploded and came off. This caused the spacecraft to sink, and the whole incident left NASA feeling embarrassed. Gus was later found to be not at fault for what happened.

Cartwright had previously worked with Kaufman on his remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and he told her he had written the part of Betty Grissom with her in mind. Still, Cartwright had to convince to the movie’s producers she was the right person for the role, but there was one thing which threatened to derail her interview with them.

Veronica Cartwright: I had been in a car accident in 1981 where I broke my leg in 35 places. Then this interview came up and I was six months in a cast, and I had nine screws and an 8-inch plate in my ankle. I had just gotten out of my cast and my mother had to drive me to the interview, and I dressed in red, white and blue. I thought this was the appropriate thing to do. As I got up the stairs and I walked, Phil came out. Well I had a bit of a limp at this point so I thought, oh my god if he sees me limping… So, I went, “Hey Phil! What’s happening?” And I danced the whole length of the hallway.

Despite the shape her leg was in, Cartwright still got the part. In fact, she didn’t even tell Kaufman or any of the producers her leg was broken until after shooting wrapped. However, she did have to wear high heels for a scene three months after her leg came out of the cast which was anything but comfortable.

Cartwright’s character is of course based on a real person, but she admitted she never got to meet Betty Grissom before, during or after making the movie. This was due to a big lawsuit going on after Gus died aboard Apollo 1 which caught fire before it took off, and Betty was not in a good state of mind to assist with the production of “The Right Stuff.” As a result, Cartwright had to rely on other ways to get into character, and she talked about how she prepared to play Betty.

VC: We looked at the archival footage and we were all given backgrounds of where the characters were born and how they met their husbands and how they got involved in the whole space program. When you’re doing a real character, I think it’s a little scarier because you want to do that person justice. It’s not coming off of your own imagination. It’s coming off of reality so you have to be careful. I hope I justified her. I always write myself a biography so I know where I came from and stuff like that. Of course, a lot of that was supplied because of her being an actual person. If I know who the person is, just from however I created them, then the lines come like that because I have become that person. I believe you need to have enough background and stuff so that, say something improvisational comes up, you would act according to what your character would do. It’s become ingrained as part of your character. I do a lot of homework before I do something, and I always found that it works for me.

During filming, Cartwright said the actors hung out with the actors while the actresses hung out with the actresses. She remarked how they were “separate entities” as a result which in a weird way was what the movie was about. Everyone in the cast, however, became a close-knit group by the end of filming, and Cartwright pointed out how this showed in the big barbecue scene where their characters are given a huge banquet in Texas courtesy of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. The scene was actually shot at the Cow Palace in San Francisco with hundreds of extras, and she remembered the shooting of it quite vividly as the meat being barbecued was not as tasty as it looked.

VC: We were in the Cow Palace for five days and those sides of beef weren’t very pretty after five days. We kept hearing, “DO NOT EAT THE MEAT! DO NOT EAT THE MEAT!” Oh my gosh! They would bring in thousands of McDonald’s burgers. Bags of McDonald’s were handed out because they kept saying, “DO NOT EAT THE MEAT!” They would be over there with that blowtorch and putting that glaze all over the beef and it was disgusting. But it was a wonderful experience (filming that scene), it was really great.

In talking about Kaufman, Cartwright described him as a great, lovely person. Since “The Right Stuff” is such a big ensemble piece, everyone had major rehearsals to get the blocking right, but Kaufman did allow for improvisation. Cartwright also admitted the scene in the hotel where Betty gets upset with Gus because they were not invited to the White House after his space mission took a whole day to shoot.

The screenplay for “The Right Stuff” was to be written by William Goldman, but Goldman wanted to leave out the Chuck Yeager story and focus solely on the astronauts. Kaufman disagreed with this decision as he felt Yeager’s story was a very important part of the film because, even though he didn’t go into space, the future of space travel really began with him. Goldman ended up withdrawing from the film and Kaufman wrote the screenplay himself. Cartwright lauded his work.

VC: I thought the script was brilliant because the book is sort of like a train of thought and things that are said but not spoken out loud. What Phil did was he took that book and made all those thoughts reality. I think very rarely can books translate into the movies and the movies be as good as the books were, and in this case, he was right on.

The cinematographer for “The Right Stuff” was Caleb Deschanel who received an Oscar nomination for his work. He was also nominated for his work on the films “The Natural,” “Fly Away Home,” “The Patriot” and “The Passion of the Christ.” Of course, these days he is known as the father of Emily and Zooey Deschanel who have become successful actresses in their own right.

VC: He’s very meticulous. The lighting was amazing. He didn’t have standard lights. Everything had these big shrouds of silks over the top of them. The whole Cow Palace was lit and it would be on gimbles where they could just move the lighting, but it took hours to set up. It was pretty intense. And it’s so funny to see Zooey now because she was three-years old during the making of the movie, and Emily had just been born. Thirty years is a long time!

Actually, the most fascinating story Cartwright told that evening involved how Kaufman and his crew filmed the flying sequences. Until “Top Gun” came along, “The Right Stuff” had some of the best and most convincing aerial footage of any movie I had ever seen. So it was a big surprise when Cartwright revealed to us what kinds of planes and special effects were used to create those moments.

VC: When you see the planes going up and down, those were all Japanese models and they (the filmmakers) stood on the top of a very tall building and chucked them off (laughs). That was the CGI! They just sort of painted them and Phil said “oh my God it was incredible! We just go up on the top of the building and throw the plane off and see what happens!” So when you’re watching the movie tonight, you can figure out that it’s a little Japanese air model. It was hysterical!

Veronica Cartwright ended her Q&A with Brian McQuery by saying “The Right Stuff” was a wonderful movie and that she loved the sense of drama and comedy and how it was a wonderful blend of the two. Thirty years after its release, we couldn’t have agreed more. “The Right Stuff” remains one of the greatest movies to come out of the 1980s, and it has lost none of its power to excite and entertain those who watch it. Some movies don’t age well, but this one has.

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Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Remains an Exceptionally Intense Experience

Alien movie poster

In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.

Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.

Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.

There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.

Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.

But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.

As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.

A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.

All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.

I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.

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Veronica Cartwright Looks Back at the Chestburster Scene from ‘Alien’

Veronica Cartwright in Alien

While Veronica Cartwright was at New Beverly Cinema to talk about “The Right Stuff,” filmmaker Brian McQuery couldn’t help but ask her a question about another famous movie she starred in, “Alien.” Specifically, he wanted to know more about the “chestburster” scene which is one of the film’s most horrifying moments. The story behind this scene has been told over and over again throughout the years, but Cartwright was still willing to talk and clear up a few things about it.

Legend has it neither Cartwright nor the other actors in “Alien” had any idea of what exactly was going to erupt from John Hurt’s chest. Cartwright, however, said the actors had read the script and knew something was supposed to come out of there. Also, she and Sigourney Weaver had a scene where they were supposed to know what it looked like, but they had no clue what they were going to be talking about. As a result, they visited the studio where the infant alien was being built.

“A few weeks earlier we had gone down and seen the little mockup of that little penis guy with the tail, but it wasn’t working at that point,” Cartwright said of the alien. “It was sort of a gray thing and the artists were saying ‘oh his teeth will be like this and he breathes…’ It was just like a little puppet thing that came out.”

Then came the day when the chestburster scene was shot, and Cartwright described it as though she had just filmed it yesterday.

“We’re all upstairs in the dressing room and they take John (Hurt) down, and for four hours we never saw John. John was having his false chest made,” Cartwright said. “When we were told that we could come down to the set, the entire set was dressed in plastic, everybody’s wearing raincoats, and there were big buckets of this awful stuff that smelled like formaldehyde. It stank and you gagged when you first went in there.”

“So, here’s John packed in this thing, and they had four cameras so that they would get everybody’s reaction,” Cartwright continued. “What happens is that they cut the t-shirt so that the puppeteer could push the thing through, so we all start leaning forward because you’re just fascinated to see what’s going to happen. One of the effects guys told me, ‘oh you’ll be getting a little blood on you,’ and I said, ‘oh okay.’ Not thinking, I leaned right into it. I had a jet pointed at my face, and it just shot me square in the face. It was unbelievable, and then I backed up and (in the dailies, it’s the most hysterical thing) my knees hit the back of a set piece and I flipped upside down to where you can see my cowboy boots sticking up above. I did not expect to get shot with a full blast of blood.

Veronica gets sprayed in Alien

Cartwright pointed out that the scene was done in just one take, and McQuery replied how her reaction looked “really real!” The audience at the New Beverly laughed loudly in agreement with him.

“Years later I worked with that same guy and he said, ‘sorry about that!’ How rude,” Cartwright said.

Looking back, Cartwright described “Alien” as being a very “sweaty” movie because the cast would come on the set in the morning and get covered in glycerin from a pumper. She described this as being “so gross,” but that in the end it was an experience.

While she was primarily at New Beverly Cinema to talk about “The Right Stuff,” the audience was glad McQuery asked Cartwright about the making of Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 film. Just when you think you have heard the definitive story about a classic movie scene, one of its participants comes around to inform you of one or two details you might have missed.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: The Birds

The Birds movie poster

I spent a large portion of my youth growing up in Northern California, and we were always reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when we saw a flock of them fly by. I’ve been to a number of the locations in San Francisco and Bodega Bay where this classic movie was made, but I have never actually seen it all the way through until recently. Still, it was one of those films we felt we all had seen as we are aware of its story and are constantly reminded of its existence when we see birds in the sky or in a park feeding on leftover crumbs.

It took a 50th anniversary screening of “The Birds” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to finally give me a reason to actually see it. Seeing the movie at the world famous theater made it all the more entertaining as this Hitchcock classic probably hasn’t looked this good in years. But I was especially impressed with the movie’s sound design which proved to be of an assault on our eardrums. It made you wonder if the birds were going to kill the humans by pecking them to death, or if their insane chirping and screeching would be the end of us instead.

Tippi Hedren is absolutely sublime as Melanie Daniels, a socialite who strikes up a conversation with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer who “mistakes” her for a salesperson at a bird shop. When it turns out Mitch was just teasing Melanie as he knew all along she wasn’t an employee but instead someone he remembered from a court case, she gets all pissed and looks to one up him. So she drives out to Bodega Bay, a small coastal town in Northern California where Mitch spends the weekends with his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his sister Cathy (a very young Veronica Cartwright). And that’s when the birds start to attack…

Bodega Bay is really a perfect location for a horror movie; a small seaside town which looks so peaceful and isolated from the rest of the world. But it’s this isolation which dooms the humans in “The Birds” as many of them can’t see outside their little town for any possible escape. Many people come to these small towns to get away from big city life, but if it’s bad in Bodega Bay when these birds attack, imagine how bad it must be in San Francisco with them all perched over the Golden Gate Bridge, just waiting to launch another bloodthirsty assault.

The first bird attack actually doesn’t happen until about a half hour or so, and I don’t imagine any filmmaker, even Hitchcock, getting away with this today except Steven Spielberg. Studio executives would probably be saying, “Can you introduce the bird attacks any sooner?” But this is okay because Hitchcock is clearly having fun with Melanie and Mitch as they play cat and mouse games with each other. The scene where Melanie sneaks into Mitch’s home so she can secretly give him a present is very suspenseful as I kept expecting Mitch to pop up in the doorway at any second. His reaction to what Melanie has gotten away with is priceless.

When a seagull attacks Melanie while she is on a boat, it completely catches us off guard as we have become so wrapped up in the chemistry between her and Mitch. Indeed, it’s the human characters I wondered more about than the birds themselves. Each person Melanie comes into contact with appears to have some sort of hidden agenda you are itching to figure out before the movie ends. With the birds, it’s not hard to figure out what their agenda is.

Hitchcock made “The Birds” a few years after “Psycho,” and it shows him still having a thing for overbearing mothers. Tandy is wonderful in portraying her deep-seated suspicions about Melanie without words, and I kept thinking she had some evil plan going on behind those eyes of hers. Like Mrs. Bates, she’s a little too overprotective of who her son goes out with.

Then there’s the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (the alluring Suzanne Pleshette) who was once in a relationship with Mitch, and she keeps eyeing Melanie ever so seductively when talking about him. Annie tells Melanie she and Mitch remain the best of friends as she smokes a cigarette (which, like it or not, still looks glamorous onscreen), but what does Annie really mean? Pleshette makes Annie a very enigmatic character, and it’s like she’s daring you to look deeper into those beautiful eyes of hers.

Granted, the special effects in “The Birds” these days look a bit campy and haven’t aged well. Then again, they still look better than anything in “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” Hitchcock shoots the bird attacks in the same way he shot the shower scene in “Psycho;” with a lot of quick cuts which gives you the illusion you’re seeing more than what’s onscreen. This is especially the case when Melanie ventures upstairs to the room which the birds have broken into. The editing is all over the place, and it makes the attack seem all the more painfully brutal as a result.

I loved how Hitchcock just strings the audience along throughout and manages to stay one step ahead of them. M. Night Shyamalan has been desperately trying to do this with many of his movies, but Hitchcock remains the master when it comes to generating suspense. He’s careful not to give too much away, and he always keeps you wondering what will happen next. At the movie’s end, many questions are left unanswered and the fates of certain characters remain up in the air, but this makes the experience all the more terrifying even after the lights come up in the theatre. Hitchcock is not interested in giving the audience an easy way out, and “The Birds” stays with you long after it has ended.

One image which will forever stay with me is the scene at the school where Melanie waits outside as the children sing “Wee Cooper O’Fife,” and she doesn’t notice the dozens of birds which are perched on the jungle gym behind her. You want to yell at her and say “look behind you,” and when it is revealed just how many birds are there, you feel her sheer terror as she sees for herself the danger everyone is in. Keep in mind, this movie was made long before CGI effects were even a tiny thought in somebody’s head, and this makes Hitchcock’s work with the birds all the more impressive.

Actually, looking back at the scene makes me wonder what would be more horrifying. Could it be that those birds are ready to fly up and attack the children at any given moment, or that someone is going to have clean up all the bird shit that you know will be covering the jungle gym after they fly away? With so many birds, that piece of equipment is never going to get fully cleaned. Once the kids find out what happened, you will be lucky to get any of them playing on it again!

I loved the movie’s last half where Melanie and Mitch are hiding in his family’s home which has been completely boarded up to keep the birds from getting inside. It’s at this point the film becomes a master class in sound design as the birds’ screeching (much of it created with an electroacoustic Trautonium) becomes far more unnerving than seeing them attack humans. We don’t see many birds, but we hear them and see all sorts of holes being poked in the doors as they fight their way inside. It’s one of the many brilliantly staged scenes Hitchcock has ever put together as he sticks us right inside the house with the characters to where we feel their isolation and terror over what will happen if the birds find a way inside.

I also loved how cool Hedren is as Melanie Daniels. She gives this icy blonde a seductive confidence which makes you want to follow her to ends of the earth, and it’s easy to see how this type of character came to inform many of Paul Verhoeven’s movies (“Basic Instinct” in particular). It’s a tragedy Hitchcock ruined Hedren’s career out of his unhealthy obsession with her, and his treatment of her casts a dark shadow over the legacy of “The Birds.” Needless to say, Hedren still walks through life with her head held high which says a lot about her.

It’s also a kick to see Veronica Cartwright here as it helps to certify her status as one of the great scream queens in horror movies. These days we know her best from her terrifying turns as Lambert in “Alien” and in Philip Kaufman’s remake of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but this was the first horror movie which she appeared in, and she was only 12 years old at the time (she turned 13 during its making). After all these years, Cartwright remains a fascinating actress to watch.

Perhaps “The Birds” would have had a stronger effect on me had I watched it on its 25th anniversary instead. But the fact it holds up so well after half a century says a lot about Hitchcock’s brilliance behind the camera, a brilliance many filmmakers still pray to have in their own careers. Still, more than thirty years after his death, there is still no topping Hitchcock as the master of suspense. To those who wish to try, all I can say is good luck. You’re gonna need it.

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