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Sheldon Leonard on I SPY
(in four parts)
Excerpts from And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures
(New York: Limelight, 1994)

Part II: The Inscrutable East

Trying to shoot the crimson dragon and other unique problems encountered during filming in Hong Kong.....How not to do a death scene.....The perils of Fuad Said.....Working in Japan.

Sheldon Leonard and Fouad Said scouting for locations in Hong Kong

As we moved from country to country in the course of making I Spy, we became increasingly aware of difficulties that hadn't been taken into account when we were in pre-production. We discovered that every nation presented special problems because of the nature and culture of its people.
Hong Kong has more to offer the camera than almost any other city in the world, except Venice, Rio, and, perhaps, one or two other cities that I can't think of at the moment. In Hong Kong, wherever you look there is something flamboyant and exciting to brighten the screen. But while it offers wonderful backgrounds, it is certainly one of the most difficult places in the world in which to make pictures.
Crowd control is not a problem in all cities....In Hong Kong, however, as soon as you unload a motion picture camera, the word goes out and curious Asians come flocking in. The colony is inhabited by millions of people with very little to do. Its economy, though booming, can't absorb the endless flood of refugees from China and southeast Asia. Time hangs heavily on their hands. A picture company, with people going through incomprehensible but fascinating procedures -- scurrying about and performing mysterious tasks with reflectors and microphones -- is free entertainment....
One of the first things we had done when we got to Hong Kong was to enlist the help and cooperation of the local police. They accompanied us to every location. I remember when we had set up to shoot a night scene in a remote back alley of Kowloon. During the day, we had slipped our equipment into the area in shopping bags, piece by piece, to foil the curious. As the day faded, we had remained happily undiscovered.
When it was dark enough, we got ready to shoot. The head electrician hit the generator switch. Our lights flooded the night sky. Ten minutes later, we were the center of a milling mob. The police got the crowd under control and pushed them behind an improvised rope barrier.
Just as we were ready to shoot, it started to rain. We cut the lights, covered the cameras, and repaired to a local coffeehouse to wait for the storm to pass, leaving an estimated five hundred people standing in the rain. Three hours later, at one o' clock in the morning, the rain stopped. We returned to our equipment, to find the five hundred rain-drenched looky-loos were still there.
We used many devices to foil the gawkers, but they seldom worked. Once, early in the morning, we placed a huge packing case, with a hinged flap on one side facing traffic, on the curb of busy Nathan Road. The plan was to sneak a camera and an operator into it, an hour or so before we were ready to shoot. We were going to have Culp and Cosby stroll innocently down Nathan Road, while the hidden camera filmed the scene. Wireless microphones would capture their dialogue. We hoped to get a completely natural-looking scene, with traffic flowing normally in the background, with nobody crowding into the foreground, nobody waving over Culp's shoulder, nobody thumbing his nose at the camera.
It might have worked, except that by the time we were ready to roll, the cameraman had passed out from the tropical heat in his little cage.
We tried installing a pane of one-way glass in the back of a panel truck, hoping we could shoot through it without advertising our presence. Unfortunately, the exterior surface of one-way glass acts as a mirror, so spectators happily preened and groomed themselves in it while our cameras rolled film.
One time I desperately wanted to play a scene in front of the dazzling facade of a restaurant on Boundary Road in the bustling heart of Kowloon. The restaurant had a gorgeous, sixty-foot-long, crimson dragon mounted over its entrance. The wall alongside was festooned with a structure of bamboo and reeds, which was a platform for the workmen who were repairing the building wall. The whole thing was supported by sturdy bamboo poles. It looked wonderfully Oriental. I hungered to get it on film.
There was a public toilet across the street from the restaurant. We disguised our crew in laborers' clothes. We broke down the camera and tripod and put the parts in baskets which, with the crew, we smuggled into the roof of the toilet, well out of public view. In the scene we were about to play, the villains were instructed to drive around a corner onto Boundary Road, with Culp and Cosby in a second car, close behind. The villains were to pull up in front of the restaurant, get out of the car, and pause for a moment to allow my camera to gloat over the gorgeous crimson dragon. Then they were to enter the restaurant, followed by our boys. Sound simple, right? But the preparation that preceded it would have been appropriate for the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach.
Because we wanted an experienced man at the wheel -- who who would be sure to hit the exact mark in front of the restaurant -- we pressed the driver of the Cinemobile into service as the driver of the lead car. Each car carried a high-powered receiver for our radioed instructions. We timed the traffic lights so that we could send the cars into the intersection on a green light. We walked our actors through the scene, so they could see the marks they were expected to hit. Through it all, nobody paid any attention to us. Victory was in sight!
When everything was ready, I crossed my fingers and radioed the signal for action. The lead car came in to the scene and made the turn onto Boundary Road smoothly, Culp and Cosby close behind. Things were going fine. The pedestrian flow was uninterrupted. As the first car drove up to the restaurant, edged toward the curb, and slid up to its mark, the side mirror clipped one of the bamboo poles that supported the workers' platform, knocking it out of place. The whole thing came tumbling down. Workers rolled on the sidewalk, screaming and cursing. Pedestrians crowded around. People flooded out of nearby buildings. Within moments, everybody this side of Pasadena had jammed into the scene.
We worked on rooftops and hillsides, where none before us had ventured. We shot in squatter colonies that were controlled by the Triad, the Chinese equivalent of the Mafia. The crime lords assigned specific areas of crime to each colony, and nobody dared trespass on their franchise. One colony might be given the exclusive right to roll drunken sailors in the Suzy Wong district; another might be given the right to blackmail shopkeepers; another might have protection rights over the gambling houses; still another might get prostitution.
These colonies were made up of the refugees who had flooded into Hong Kong faster than they could be absorbed. On the hillsides, they put up flimsy shelters, made of packing cases and corrugated cardboard. The narrow passageways between hovels were ankle-deep in mud.
I remember that aspect well, because of an incident with Cosby.
I was directing a scene in which he was being chased by a Chinese villain who is close behind him, firing a pistol. Cosby simulates being shot and falls to the wet ground at a designated spot, according to a plan previously arranged with Culp. The pursuer rushes into the scene to make sure of his hit; as he stands over his fallen victim, Culp springs out of a nearby hiding place and shoots him. The villain falls dead. That's the way it was planned. This is what actually happened.
We couldn't rehearse the scene, because once Cosby fell in the mud it would take a lot of time to clean him up and put him in a fresh wardrobe. We went for an unrehearsed take.
It went well, up to a point. Cosby dashed in, pretended to be shot, and dropped, face down, into the malodorous mud. A pig that was living in a nearby packing case stuck his snout out and nosed the fallen man, bless his little porky heart! An ad libbing pig!
The villain appeared, Culp popped out of his hiding place and bang! bang! The villain spun around like a top, four times, staggered around for a while, lurched over to a rock, and sat on it!
"Cut!" I screamed. "What the hell goes on here?"
I called for an interpreter.
"Has that guy gone crazy?" I asked. "All he's got to do is fall down. What's with the ballet performance? Does he think he's Baryshnikov? Straighten him out. Clean Cosby up, and we'll try it again. Please God, let that lovely pig do what he did, once more."
On Take Two, Cosby and the pig performed flawlessly. The villain came into the scene and got shot. He fell to the ground, as instructed, stuck his leg up in the air like a flagpole and wobbled it about!
"Cut! Cut! Cut! Gimme a gun! A real gun! I'll kill him! I'll teach him how to die! What is it with him?"
The interpreter explained, "He doesn't want to make it look too real, as though he's really dead, because if the demons think he's helpless they will steal his soul."
Well, you can't argue with that.
Take Three. Cosby came into the scene and fell into the mud. The pig did his thing. What a ham! The villain rushed in and Culp shot him. He staggered out of the shot, presumably to die off screen. All's well that ends well.
Fuad Said was an important factor in making the location a success. The hastily assembled crew, under his guidance, worked as though they had been together for years. The equipment he supplied worked flawlessly, because he often stayed up all night to service and maintain it. The location lunches he provided would have done credit to a gourmet restaurant. Pates, salads, a choice of lobster, chicken, or roast beef, and a choice of beverages -- Coca-Cola or Mouton Rothschild -- to wash it all down.
When I told Said what kind of shot I wanted, no matter how difficult it was, his invariable answer was "No problem."
One time, I needed a shot from the roof of the Peninsula Hotel, looking down into a courtyard. Fuad went up to the roof to line it up. I followed a short time later. I saw a startling sight. Fuad was hanging over the end of a two-by-twelve plank, balanced like a seesaw, over a parapet twelve stories above the courtyard. With Fuad at one end, the other end was balanced by a scrawny Chinese boy. He got the shot I had asked for. Later he explained that the precarious device was the only way he could get over the parapet because there was a wide drainage ditch separating it from the rest of the roof. It was a lucky day for me when he came to my office and began twisting my arm.
Despite the problems, we left Hong Kong loaded with cinematic goodies. Fuad Said stole some shots with a hand-held camera in a gambling parlor, amid the deafening click, click, click of mah-jongg tiles. We got shots in the red-light district, with prostitutes glowering at us from every window. We shot stuff on Cat Street, where the shopkeepers hid their faces whenever the camera turned their way. The city officials were marvelously helpful. The unfailingly cooperative Hong Kong police got us into places we hadn't dared hope to see -- places that had never before been filmed....
Japan was our next foreign location. In Japan, crowd control is not a big problem. The industrious Japanese are inclined to go about their affairs, and the fact that they are jammed together in living quarters separated from one another by paper partitions has trained them to mind their own business. Many of the problems we encountered in Japan were caused by the national personality.
I had visited Japan for the first time in 1953, when the Japanese were uniformly helpful and cooperative and eager to please. They were still recovering from the trauma of World War II, and they wanted to regain acceptance.
When I came back with the I Spy company in 1966, they had changed. In the intervening years, Japan had prospered mightily. They were no longer humble and ingratiating. The old Imperial arrogance was reappearing.
They reneged on agreements. They raised previously agreed-upon prices. With some notable exceptions, such as Ian Mutsu, grandson of one of Japan's revered Prime Ministers, who was our expeditor, they were unfriendly and unhelpful.
Nikko, a village an hour train ride out of Tokyo, is a collection of marvelous, legendary temples. We had scheduled four days of shooting there and had reservations in the local hotel for five actors and a crew of twenty. We arrived to find that our reservations had been cancelled to make room for a convention of industrialists. The hotel manager made no apology. Our location manager scattered the company around in private homes, which made it difficult to gather everybody together for the start of a day's work. We fell two days behind schedule.
We were shooting in a fishing village on the Izu peninsula when we ran into a unique problem. The local people had taken offense at our presence, for reasons we never determined. The bare-breasted women of the village kept walking into our shots, thrusting their well-developed bosoms at the camera. I liked the effect, but the network censors would have been unhappy....
We had made arrangements to shoot in Tokyo's huge central market, in the section where tons and tons of freshly frozen fish are unloaded every day. When we arrived on the scheduled day and started to unload, we were turned away. It seems the management had second thoughts. They had decided that the heat of our lamps might thaw their frozen fish.
I wasn't sorry to leave Japan, even though they had excellent beer.
to continue, click below...
Part III: South of the Border