The camera moves in tight on the bell of a trumpet, across its player's fingertips, up to his face, past him to a guitarist's strumming fingers, and pans to a singing senorita, pulls back for a full shot of the seaside terrace of Acapulco's elaborate La Concha Beach Club, follows a bikini-clad actress as she crosses over to Bob Culp and Bill Cosby seated at an umbrella-shaded table, takes in another actor charging into the frame, and finally zooms into a tight three-shot of the girl waving her bikini at the two stars.
If it sounds complicated, it is. A few years ago such a shot -- calling for eight focus settings, two zooms, and three aperture changes -- would have been rare in series TV, unthinkable on a TV location. Today it is commonplace on I Spy and constitutes a major upheaval in TV film making.
The man responsible is diminutive (5-foot-5), energetic, Egyptian-born Fouad Said (Foo-ahd Sah-eed), at 35 the youngest director of photography in the business. This irrepressible firebrand, known on the set as "Fou" and described by his crew as "a gutsy little guy," has ignited a one-man revolution against what he considers hopelessly antiquated filming techniques. So incendiary are Said's ideas that for many years his own union barred him from shooting in the U.S. It feared that, were his practices to be adopted, whole complexes of studios, soundstages and backlots would be obsolete overnight; vast inventories of archaic cameras, lights, arcs, generators, dollies and microphones would be relegated to the junkpiles; and armies of superannuated technicians would be mercifully released to retirement.
Said should have been an actor. He has a way of wildly dramatizing what he is talking about. His favorite story, delivered with gestures, concerns a famous movie director who as an apprentice scratched his initials on the stand of an arc light and found the stand and light still in use 30 years later. "Those klunky arcs weigh 400 pounds and give off no more light than two of my quartz units. Each weighs 14 pounds. You can hold it in one hand."
Fouad takes delight in pointing out that any other TV series going out on location requires at least 10 vans to equal what he accomplishes with one panel truck. "My truck houses two generators, six Arriflex cameras, wireless mikes, quartz and xenon lamps, dolly and track, and the top deck lifts 23 feet above the roof in 18 seconds for a camera platform. The truck fits into the belly of a cargo jet to be flown anyplace in the world in 24 hours. Hollywood uses 70 men where I need only 11, plus a few recruited locally."
Exiled to Hong Kong, Japan, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Greece, Mexico -- out of the grasp of Hollywood's rigor mortis embrace -- I Spy became the only teleseries to shoot 12 pages of script a day (twice what is shot back home) and productions costs have been cut from $14,000 to $4,000 per day. That's a savings of $60,000 per episode according to Hollywood scales.
Understandably, the Hollywood Establishment saw red. There were rumblings from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators -- the industry's "umbrella" union. There were cries of "runaway production." Fouad follows these developments with the fiery dedication of a guerrilla leader plotting his campaign up in the Sierra Maestra. He has always been relentless in his assault on the seniority rosters, the nepotism (union cards handed down from father to son), the locked doors to newcomers -- roadblocks that in his view have kept the industry at a standstill for nearly 40 years.
I have come to Acapulco with only a passing interest in this humid playground of jet-set hedonists, willing beachboys and refrigerated hostelries. These are merely props for a larger drama -- Fouad Said vs. The Establishment. He and the rest of the I Spyers are putting up at the Las Brisas, the well-publicized cliff-hanging inn where every guest has his own pink refrigerator, pink jeep and private swimming pool. The inn itself and the five or six Acapulco locations per day are, for us, the setting for a series of informal seminars.
Cosby and Culp, the stars, have heard it all before. "Sure, Fouad's a fighter. He's made us all into fighters," Cosby says, and sits down with his air-mail edition of Variety. Culp's at a table with actress France Nuyen, now his wife, studying a detective novel he hopes to transmute into a succession of money-making flicks for himself.
The ex-movie gangster who is I Spy's executive producer, the man who first perceived Said's high-powered potential and gave him his chance -- Sheldon Leonard -- a gentleman of impressive bearing even in his swim trunks, perches on a ledge over the water. "Once Fouad said to me, 'I can't do anything right today,' and I said to him, 'Now you know how Nasser felt.' But the thing I liked about Fouad was that the same mistake never happened twice."
Though Leonard is an innovator -- he cast Cosby as the first Negro series lead -- he also ranks as an older statesman, having worked in the studios for 28 years. He's a man who weighs his words. "I consider myself not anti-industry or anti-union. I consider myself a gadfly. I want to make our pictures competitive with what we see on foreign screens."
He quotes from an articulate author -- himself -- in a recent issue of the Directors Guild magazine: "We are still making pictures in America with Model T techniques while other countries are using Jet-Age methods....More than any other industry of comparable size, the motion picture industry has resisted change since the upheavals of the early sound days ended."
Leonard starts to pull on his swim fins and goggles. "The remark that sickens me is: 'What do you need that for? We've been making pictures for 30 years without it.'" He drops over the stone ledge into the bay. Cosby grabs a bullhorn for one of his characteristic put-ons: "Will the elderly people please get out of the water! The sharks are getting closer!" His boss grins and submerges.
Ever see a naked cinematographer? A practically naked cinematographer? Fouad is shooting in his beach briefs at the Club Paradise, the a-go-go beach cafe that operates afternoons. It's the home of the world's scantiest bikinis and wildest gyrations. That's what the I Spyers certify, and they've been around the world a few times. At lunch break, through mouthfuls of broiled red snapper, Fouad is fulminating on his favorite subject -- Hollywood. "New equipment isn't even made there any more! I'm forced to use my French zooms, Italian quartz lights, German lightweight cameras, Swedish zoom motors, English invertors, Swiss sound mixers and Japanese long focal lenses."
A waiter brings tropical drinks in green coconut shells with pink flowers. Fouad takes a sip and makes a face -- he's practically a teetotaler. "Know why the studios won't buy new equipment? Supposing the executives go to their department heads for advice. The department heads are union stewards. That's the end of the new equipment."
The combo wails. The bikinis gyrate. Fouad's eyes follow a wriggling torso. (He's notorious for that.) The music is deafening. Fouad has to shout: "The old Mitchell camera weighs 285 pounds! It's obsolete! The last modification was in 1934 -- when I was 1 year old!" Over the clamor he manages to tell about his new nylon-geared Arriflex, about the electric motors that activate his zooms, focus and aperture changes, about his self-designed camera dolly, half a ton lighter than those in Hollywood. A nymphet wiggles by. Fouad's eyes rove.
In the zocalo, or town square, a dozen tourist cameras are trained on I Spy's camera. Observing it all from a sidewalk cafe is the "human light meter," Homer Plannette, of whom Said has eulogized: "There's no better gaffer." Plannette orders another round of Dos Exquis [sic]. "If the average Hollywood gaffer took a look at that truck of Fouad's, he'd fall over dead, not realizing what can be done with it. Why, with two or three Mexican boys I can do what would take four times as many electricians back home." Fouad got the idea for his power supply from Boeing 707 jets. His generators are only 14 inches long. These absurdly miniscule gadgets take the place of Hollywood's lumbering vans, the like of which you haven't seen since your family moved from Ashtabula to Dubuque.
Fouad Said and one of his lightweight cameras are surrounded
by (l.-r.) Culp, producer Leonard and Cosby
We dine at 9 at Armando's the "in" spot. I Spyers are sprinkled throughout. Trays of frosty Magaritas [sic] appear. Production manager Leon Chooluck is telling "Fouad stories": "Remember the time on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong when Fouad crawled out on that 2-by-12 plank, with two Chinese coolies sitting on the other end, holding it down? Who didn't even speak English? Was Fouad worried? Sure, he was worried -- about his Arriflex!"
Fouad interrupts. He wants to make sure I get the proper picture of the "typical" director of photography back in Hollywood: He's 65 years old. He sits in a canvas chair all day. He never looks at the camera. He's not permitted to by union rule. His assistants do all the work. It's been 40 years since he even touched a camera. New things are passing him by.
Next morning, on the road to the Quebrada cliffs, where the turistas gather to watch native divers plunge 125 feet to the foaming surf below, Robert Culp takes over and directs his Big Fight Scene, as he does all his Big Fight Scenes. It takes three times longer, but he's good at it. I Spy's special-effects man, Joe Lombardi, is on hand. Joe is one of those who succeeded in cracking the System: "The more the union fought me, the more I wanted to get in. They don't know it, but they did me a big favor. I studied special effects on my own. It took me only 12 years to get my card. I'm now 44. The average age in special effects is 63."
The unit's still photographer, Don Leomazzi, 24, with a Yul Brynner haircut, stands by listening. The System won't have any part of Don: "The union told me I had to go out and get a job first. When I Spy took me on, I went back and they said, 'Gee, that's tough, kid, two of our members just showed up for that job. If we ever hear of anything, we'll let you know.' So the upshot is that I can work for I Spy only outside the country. When the unit moves back to Hollywood, my home town, I'm out on my ear."
Fouad's a nonstop gab-artist on the subject of "Hollywood" but a sphinx when it comes to his own origins in Egypt. I got him cornered one night on his balcony at the Las Brisas and elicited a skeletal career history that even his secretary, who was present, had never heard.
When he was just a kid, Fouad worked in the film studios of Cairo as a messenger boy, and in the chemical lab and the printing lab. When he was 17 and 18, he was hired as a film loader on seven American movies shooting in Egypt; he got to know the cameramen and followed them back to Hollywood. He enrolled at USC in cinematography, supported himself by working nights in a gas station, became an American citizen and got his degree in 1957. When he found all doors closed to him in Hollywood, he hired out as a cameraman in England, France, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, Tahiti and Brazil.
That's what made Said such a prize catch for Sheldon Leonard and I Spy. They've been exploring the globe together for three seasons now -- the mighty TV mogul, with cigar in mouth, cashmere sweater, ostrich-skin shoes from Hong Kong -- and the nimble little revolutionary from the Nile Delta. An improbable combo. Yet alike in one way, according to director Bob Butler: "Sheldon is professorial, intrigued by the scholarship of picture-making, didactic, even pedantic, yet he's free. Fouad is free too. We'd change our minds at the last minute and lay out an elaborate daily shot just to get in an exquisite marble floor. They're free spirits, the both of them."
Culp and Cosby stroll along Acapulco's embarcadero, stopping for an exchange of dialog in front of Said's Arriflex. This time there are no zooms and only one focus change. Culp starts reading his lines: "Life is good." Cosby replies jauntily: "It's better than that, man. On a day like today there's a wonderfulness from the sky and the sea and the people that kisses you all over the neck and the nose." Culp says: "Name another day when such a report to the Pentagon was written by two fine American spies..."
Which wraps up TV Espionage in Tropical Acapulco. The production manager has already made hotel reservations in Scotland for another episode. The scriptwriters are already churning out dialog for additional segments.
Several weeks later Fouad returns to Hollywood. Imagine his chagrin when the International Photographers, Local 659, IATSE, invites him to join as a Group I member with full privileges of senior membership. The rebel has joined the Establishment!
Victory is sweet. However, the "revolution" is far from over; it has merely switched battlegrounds. "Before, I was Mr. International Hobo. Now I'm a good union member. I have a home. I will keep on fighting for better, faster equipment, more modern ways of doing things."
Or, as Sheldon Leonard, never one to mask his Zionist sympathies, is heard to remark, "If all the Arabs had been like Fouad, they'd have won their war, too."
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