Curtis Harrington: Creating Suspense & Ambience on DYNASTY

Discussion in 'Dynasty' started by Gabriel Maxwell, Sep 22, 2016.

  1. Gabriel Maxwell

    Gabriel Maxwell Soap Chat Well-Known Member

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    Kudos to Bing cache for allowing me to re-create this thread I originally posted in July.

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    One of my favorite DYNASTY scenes is certainly Curtis Harrington's (1926-2007) beautifully directed (and beautifully scored) midnight mansion hallway scene in the season 4 episode 'Tracy' (4x07) when Adam Carrington arrives home late in an attempt to avoid speaking to his father and Blake confronts him.

    The unusual manner in which the camera pans across an empty hallway helps create suspense and the viewer is left genuinely surprised when we see Blake who had emerged while the camera was focusing on the front door, helping us experience the same surprise as Adam.

    Imagine my delight when I found several paragraphs on the scene and Harrington's experience with DYNASTY in an interview with the director in The Dynasty Years, a 1995 book by the Norwegian author Jostein Gripsrud, which is filled with lots of interesting behind the scenes information regarding the production of the series.

    Here's how Harrington explained how he created suspense and ambience for the scene. Perhaps surprisingly, he also said he was happy he was allowed to make such creative decisions as that wasn't the norm in Hollywood where a 'standard way of doing things' was preferred.

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    @James from London responded:

    "The space for directorial difference is still so small normally that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the 'styles' of different directors."

    My (limited) understanding is that that was also the case with Hollywood movies under the studio system. Directors, like actors, were under contract and had no say in what films they were assigned or who was cast in them (at least in theory). They were regarded as guns for hire. Movies weren't considered a director's medium until French cinema obsessives in the sixties detected tropes and themes that certain Hollywood studio directors had managed to deploy in their films in spite of the constraints placed on them (John Ford's tendency to frame several actors in a single shot for long periods is the one example I remember) and so the idea of the director-as-auteur (the author of a film) was born. (To be honest, I'm not quite sure where people like Hitchcock and Sirk fit in. Maybe the Hitchockian and Sirkian styles had previously existed but no one noticed until the 60s? Dunno.)

    Anyway, I guess the same thing applied to television directors in the 80s (and beyond). The one 80s soap director whose style I can immediately recognise is Larry Elikann. I can usually detect his "in your face" camera style just from from a "next week on ..." preview of KNOTS, FLAMINGO ROAD or FALCON CREST.

    It's an interesting article, thanks for posting it, Gabriel. It reminds me of what Barney Thingummy, the producer/creator of CAGNEY AND LACEY said in his autobiography -- that the demands of television are (or were) such that one could only realistically hope to create one or two minutes of truly quality television per day (or was it per episode?). The rest was just filler.

    To me, that tension between the striving for quality, for artistry if you like, and the factory-like demands for product is one of the things that's so interesting about soap opera, then and now. It's a compromise but out of that very compromise, interesting things emerge -- intentional tropes and unintentional tropes, inventiveness out of necessity and complete accidents.

    The thing about censorship is interesting too. That's partly why I've never been comfortable writing off showrunners, producers, etc., as two-dimensional baddies with no creative integrity. Until one has experienced working in that environment, under those pressures, with those demands, one can't really know what it was like or what they were up against. (I'm not saying I know any more than anyone else.)

    * Cahier du Cinema, nouvelle vague and Truffant would all be terms to drop at this point if I actually knew what I was talking about.

    SnarkyOracle said:

    Some directors turn out consistently impressive work and some producers turn out consistently unimpressive work. So some people are able to navigate that tension more effectively.

    In a way, I'm almost not surprised that Harrington felt a certain freedom on DYNASTY because, despite Spelling's usual flat lighting policy, the inconsistency of DYNASTY's style (like the excellent execution of the first episode of S4 versus the stuff that followed) suggest the top brass weren't anti-art per se as much as deadeningly uninspired when left to their own devices. And that just underscores how important a line producer/show-runner is (convincing me further that Ed Ledding had a lot to do with S2's panache).

    BTW: I think the only letter I ever wrote to the "Dynasty" office was during Season 4, telling them that Curtis Harrington was their best episodic director by far.

    He also added:

    I remember reading an article in the mid-'80s with, I think, bit part actors who had worked on both DALLAS and DYNASTY, contrasting the approach to production on the sets of both shows.

    Despite Katzman's anti-art policy (and his absurd dislike for Harrington's directorial work elsewhere) there was a willingness to do a scene over and over until they got it right on DALLAS. But DYNASTY (though not resistant to Harrington's talent) was much sloppier about just getting it "in the can" and moving on.

    And the viewer could certainly feel that watching the two programs.

    But then Katzman, for all his flaws, was known for being preternaturally organized. The DALLAS actors praised him for the production being so tight that they often drove home while the sun was still up -- almost unheard of for series TV.

    The extra time created by that kind of organzation must allow for a greater amount of polishing in terms of the performances, etc...

    Indeed, the word "organization" is the one I often see when casts and crews talk about film sets where everything seems to work, including artistically, as opposed to ones where it doesn't.

    The Shapiros described DYNASTY as "very organized" too, but I'm assuming that referred to things which didn't affect the quality of the scene -- at least during its middle years. If they had a very good director like Harrington who could do his shtick in proper time, it could go well. Otherwise, though, we got the usual clunkier stuff which tended to feel so amateurish.

    George Hamilton gave an interview where he said the producers seemed only concerned with wardrobe and the "look" of the actors, and his questions to them about character "motivation" and how to play a scene fell on deaf ears. Not that I've ever really seen Hamilton play anything differently from role to role. lol

    DALLAS' Leonard Katzman, of course, hated Harrington's work and told him so.

    Finally, Snarky posted this documentary:







    A week later, I added this post:

    Last night I saw the first of 5 episodes of THE COLBYS Curtis Harrington directed (102, "Conspiracy of Silence"). In addition to being beautifully directed, I thought the episode had several fine director's touches, such as the closing scene.

    As Jeff gives Fallon back the jewelry she was forced to pawn Miles appears for a brief second in the background and hastily exits. Jeff himself then exits the room blissfully looking at Fallon one last time, the audience expecting him to come face to face with Miles.

    On the other side, neither Jeff in his state of bliss nor the audience can yet see Miles and the mellow score (by Angela Morley) gives no indication of trouble. Then the camera steps backwards to reveal Miles (whom Jeff still can't see for a brief second) and the score turns ominous.

    I also loved the closing section of Morley's score (which was savagely butchered in German dubbing) giving the conflict the tone of an honorable duel between the two men.

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  2. Alexis

    Alexis Soap Chat Mega Star

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    I have the book The Dynasty Years but it seems quite a heavy read for it's subject matter. I haven't had time to get stuck into it yet maybe after I get back from holiday.
     
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  3. Snarky's Ghost

    Snarky's Ghost Soap Chat Oracle

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    How is it a heavy read? I haven't seen it.
     
  4. Alexis

    Alexis Soap Chat Mega Star

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    It's a big book...Like a phone book lol. I need to go dig it out from downstairs but it just seemed like a lot of reading, and kind of dry...
    [​IMG]
     
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  5. Alexis

    Alexis Soap Chat Mega Star

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    Isn't the picture of Joan Collins on the cover of the book actually from The Reunion?
     
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  6. Snarky's Ghost

    Snarky's Ghost Soap Chat Oracle

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    Perhaps not Harrington's finest hour and a half, but it's got Minx Morrell, the brittle one from CHARLIE'S ANGELS, and that shrouded, overcast, early-'70s horror vibe!

    And it's like a plot FALCON CREST should've done!:

     
    Last edited: May 5, 2017
  7. Snarky's Ghost

    Snarky's Ghost Soap Chat Oracle

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    Or at least have more minimalistic (non-Harrington) scenes like this:

     
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  8. Willie Oleson

    Willie Oleson drilling for soap

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    I like how they discuss Blake as "dad missed you tonight" - kinda like "the patriarch, the man with the money, should not be disappointed".

    How could Gordon Thomson think his role sucked in season 9?
     
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  9. Matthew Blaisdel

    Matthew Blaisdel Soap Chat Addict

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    But the cover looks great! :D
     
  10. Snarky's Ghost

    Snarky's Ghost Soap Chat Oracle

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    Well.......... someone on the show hinted that Joan might have been going around whispering in her co-stars' ears because she wasn't pleased with being cut back (despite being better used) in Season 9.
     
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  11. Willie Oleson

    Willie Oleson drilling for soap

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    But what about his own opinion? He's the one who played Adam, not Joan Collins.
    Are actors so naive?

    Anyway, I love it when the set/scenery becomes an "active" part - the house that looks back at you, eavesdrops, hides people in its shadow etc.
     
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  12. Willie Oleson

    Willie Oleson drilling for soap

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    Oh that annoys the hell out of me! Everything else is taken directly from the film, at least they could have used a picture from season 2 or 3, not JC posing for her perfume or her book or whatever (because that's what it looks like).

    Why is it so hard to get it right when it's so easy to do? Why can't they see it? And why are they still getting paid for it? Baffling!!
     
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  13. Alexis

    Alexis Soap Chat Mega Star

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    Oh yes... Part of the reason I love season 9 so much is the way the mansion set is brought to life. All the different lighting like in the scene posted. There are even scenes with lovely warm sunlight coming threw the windows. It just makes it all the more real. Lots of scenes are filmed from odd angles too as I recall. The set is really used to full effect.
     
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  14. Willie Oleson

    Willie Oleson drilling for soap

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    Jostein Gripsrud...what kind of name is that? And what could possibly be in that book? A list of fabulous unused Dynasty names? (I assume it was published before the internet was..well, started to exist).
     
  15. Snarky's Ghost

    Snarky's Ghost Soap Chat Oracle

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    I'm not sure that actors are any more naïve than anybody else, but people whisper into others' ears disingenuously because it sometimes works.

    Gordon Thomson's explanation was that although Paulsen sat down with the actors at the start of S9 and asked them how they felt about their characters' handling, and that Thomson said he had no problems with where Adam was at that point, by the end of S9, he did, because he felt Paulsen had in some way gotten away from the character's fundamental conflict over his identity.

    The problem is that that just doesn't read on screen. Did Gordon really feel Adam was better served by the slop they handed him for the previous several seasons? In interviews, he reveals that he and the other actors were well aware of the crash in script-quality during that period and their frustrations over not being able to do anything about it. So was what Paulsen gave him really so much worse??

    JJ contemptuously asserted that he nixed plans for Jeff to sleep with his sister in S9 (it doesn't appear that that was actually the plan, and actors are sometimes told different things by different parties). And Forsythe had problems with what they were doing in S9, too, but that may have had something to do with Linda being gone as well as Joan's buzzings. While Linda loved the way they wrote her exit. And Heather said the final season was "a blast."

    Joan praised the new producers in the fall of 1988 for writing the show "with a lot more of a sense of fun", but then withdrew the praise once she started getting cut back. Later, she seemed to mimic the "oh, the Pollocks were so great until someone else came in and replaced them" line of revisionism, probably fed to her by Esther.

    It does make one a little bit less sympathetic to the actors' frustrations and sadness about the downturn of the show when they're oblivious about Paulsen's superior work, or are tricked out of granting his improvements any acknowledgement.

    But then there's no reason we should expect any greater objectivity from actors than any other demographic.


    Yes, and that effect is not so easily achieved -- it takes a certain kind of photography, lighting, processing. And although I like the darkened hall in the S9 scene I posted above with Fallon#2 and Adam, and it has a nice less-is-more gothicky vibe about it, it still doesn't have what that Curtis Harrington hallway scene from S4 has (the house that looks back at you, eavesdrops, hides people in its shadow).
     
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