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Other segments from the episode on March 6, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 6, 1998: Interview with David Breashears; Interview with Stanley Donen; Review of the film "The Big Lebowski."

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Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030601NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Everest
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane filling in for Terry Gross.

Everest has exerted its psychic pull on mountain climbers through the century, and many have died attempting to scale its treacherous terrain. In recent years, amateur climbers have signed on to expeditions to scale the forbidding, dangerous, oxygen-poor environment.

In May, 1996, eight climbers were killed while trying to descend the mountain during a sudden freak blizzard. This was the story documented by journalist and climber John Krakauer in his bestselling book "Into Thin Air."

David Breashears was also on Everest during that blizzard, making a movie using a large-format IMAX camera. His team suspended filming to assist in the rescue efforts. They eventually returned to their expedition and reached the top of Everest.

Breashears is a veteran climber and four-time Emmy Award winner. He's made 18 trips to the Himalayas, and has climbed to the top of Everest four times. His IMAX film about Everest opens this week in New York and in other cities later this spring.

National Geographic published a book about his expedition called "Everest: Mountain Without Mercy."

David Breashears told me about the physical challenges of climbing Everest. He says that at high altitudes, breathing is like running on a treadmill while inhaling through a straw.

DAVID BREASHEARS, CINEMATOGRAPHER, FILMMAKER, "EVEREST": It's impossible for me in any film or any book to convey to someone who hasn't been there what it's really like to be at those elevations -- 26-, 27,000 feet -- where we're breathing about one-third or one-quarter of the oxygen that we're breathing here in these studios at sea level.

And it's about a profound kind of lethargy, and feeling tired and lying in your tent at 26,000 feet and knowing you have to get ready to go, to leave your tent on -- for the summit day. And looking at your boot and saying: "I need to put that boot on." And five minutes later, you're still looking at that boot. And then maybe you've picked up that boot and then maybe, you know, you eventually get it on. It's just a profound kind of lethargy.

MOSS-COANE: Well, it sounds like everything is in slow motion.

BREASHEARS: Yeah, it is. It is. And we did a considerable amount of what we call "psychometric testing" this year for Nova, and we were administered tests, pages and pages of tests, over the radio and two things happened the higher we go. The accuracy of your responses decreases, but much more dramatically, the speed of your responses decreases. So, you do start to live in a state like you've just described -- a somewhat slow motion state. You're not thinking as quickly.

It's not to say you don't think as clearly at times. In my tests from sea level to the summit, I had a 97 or 98 percent accuracy rating. But I slowed down so I could think more clearly. Other members of our team taking these same psychometric tests, if they tried to respond in the same speed, then the accuracy went down greatly.

So it seems that if you -- you can think virtually as clearly, but much more slowly.

MOSS-COANE: Well, and that's because at those altitudes there's just much less oxygen that's getting to the brain even when you're wearing face mask. Can that make up for the decrease in oxygen?

BREASHEARS: Well, let's describe it like this. That oxygen-deprived state is called hypoxia, and that's basically the state you're in whenever you're above 24-, 25,000 feet on Everest, with or without supplemental oxygen. Its -- your body's oxygen-starved. You're wearing supplemental oxygen, but it's mixed with ambient air. You generally put on or start using supplemental oxygen, which is bottled oxygen, above 26,000 feet. But it's not a closed system.

MOSS-COANE: Mmm-hm.

BREASHEARS: It's -- you still are relying predominantly on the ambient air. The flow rate, if you can imagine this, in volume is only two liters per minute. You know, you inhale and exhale at least two liters of volume in every breath. So two liters of nearly pure oxygen is trickling into that mass per minute to be mixed in with the ambient air.

So it does, in effect, place you lower on the mountain -- maybe 4-, 5,000 feet lower than if you weren't wearing and using supplemental oxygen. But the other important factor to remember, and it's a more complicated concept, is that the partial pressure is very low up there, meaning while you are able to breathe this extra oxygen, these extra oxygen molecules coming from your bottled oxygen, the barometric pressure is so low that it's not entering your system at the same pressure as oxygen at sea level.

MOSS-COANE: And that, of course, explains then why things take so long; why you have to move so slowly; and it seems to me, why so many people have such a hard time at those upper levels on Mount Everest because of just the sheer difficulty of breathing.

BREASHEARS: Well, that's a large part of it. But you have to look at a couple of other things to understand the whole picture and what's actually happening to one's body up there, 'cause it's quite extraordinary when you really examine it. For instance, let's say you're at the high camp. It's 26,000 feet -- camp four on the south pole. And your -- you've acclimatized for four or five weeks. That's how long it takes to get ready to be able to climb at those elevations.

Now -- and you're going to leave for the summit that night. Well, from our research last spring, we found out that by the time you reach the summit of Everest, you've gone nearly 60 hours on three to four hours of sleep. So you're incredibly sleep-deprived and that is because sleep apnia, or interrupted breathing, or just the inability to get good rest, is a symptom of hypoxia. Once you leave the lower camps and you reach camp three and camp four, there really is no good sleep. There's little cat naps -- two or three hours at a time.

On top of that, you're severely dehydrated. You're -- once you get up there, you lose your appetite and you can't eat and you can't drink well. So you're having maybe a half a liter of water or a quart of water in a day, when you should be drinking on the recommendation of the high-altitude physiologist, four to six liters.

Then you're malnourished because also those last few days, you're not eating well. In fact, a lot of people don't eat well in general on expeditions. It's not uncommon for people to lose 25 to 30 pounds. So, that's the big picture.

MOSS-COANE: Let's talk a little bit about this IMAX camera that you had built specifically for this expedition in the spring of '96 up Mount Everest. Now normally, an IMAX camera weighs about 80 pounds. You had one designed to weigh much less, and obviously designed for these kinds of conditions.

Tell us about some of the specifics, then, of this IMAX camera that you had designed to take up on top of Mount Everest.

BREASHEARS: OK, well they had to start with a 70-pound camera and they reduced the weight to 42 pounds. And what that meant was we had a camera box, which weighed around 26 pounds. That's the body. We had a magazine loaded with film, which is about 10 pounds, so now we're at 36 pounds. And then we had lenses and batteries which weighed eight pounds. And that's what we took to the summit.

But the interesting thing about shooting on Everest in the IMAX format was that it uses 500 feet of film -- that's 4.5 pounds of film -- in 90 seconds.

MOSS-COANE: So you have to choose your shots very carefully.

BREASHEARS: Yes, yes. It uses 5.6 feet of film per second. Now, I grew up in a format -- 16 millimeter format...

MOSS-COANE: Mmm-hm.

BREASHEARS: ... where 400 feet of film -- a pound and a half of film -- lasted 11 minutes. So, I had to make this great leap of a format where I could basically, you know, leave the camera running and it wouldn't -- for a minute -- and it wouldn't make or break us. But if I left -- you know, you had three shots in this format per roll, and then you had to take the camera apart, unwrap this mechanism, reload it, and it was elaborate thing to load. And had to be done bare-handed.

MOSS-COANE: Why did you want to take an IMAX camera? Why not just get a regular old video camera or film camera and go from there?

BREASHEARS: The simple answer to your question is: Greg McGilovrey (ph) or McGilovrey-Freeman (ph) Films, one of the preeminent producers of IMAX films in the world, came to me and said: "David, we have this project. We want to make a film on Everest in the IMAX format and we want you to get that camera to the top."

And at first, I said no. I tried to convince them unless you shoot it in IMAX format up to 26,000 feet, which would be reasonable -- and then we'll just shoot the top in 35 and on that very, very large screen you can do kind of a form of what we call letter-boxing and just project the 35 millimeter image in the center of that big screen.

And he said: "but wouldn't that be anti-climactic? To get people to the top of Everest and just show them this little picture? Because you can't blow up a 35 millimeter image to fit an IMAX screen. They're 90-feet high and 110-feet wide, and the grain would be the size of golf balls -- the grain of the film.

But you want to know the reason why I really, really decided to do it? It's because I've been filming in the Himalayas for 16 years, and working really, really hard to bring back these images. And these wonderful, beautiful peaks -- the majesty and grandeur of which you cannot imagine -- are being seen by people on a 17-, 18-inch, 20-inch TV screen.

So for the first time in my career as a filmmaker, I had the opportunity to bring back film images that would be projected -- not only projected onto a screen, but the largest screen in the world.

MOSS-COANE: My guest is climber and filmmaker David Breashears. We're talking about climbing and filming on Mount Everest. We'll be back after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Let's get back to mountain climber and filmmaker David Breashears.

Let's get back to this trip -- again, this very well-documented fateful trip in the spring of 1996. You were accompanying this expedition up Mount Everest. When did you begin to see that this particular climb was headed for trouble?

BREASHEARS: Well, the first thing that happened that was -- will cause a sense of foreboding in our group was the day that all those climbers -- Rob Hall's group, Scott Fisher's group, the Taiwanese and some others -- were headed from camp three to the south coal. A young Taiwanese climber slipped at camp three and fell 80 feet.

MOSS-COANE: And died.

BREASHEARS: And -- no...

MOSS-COANE: Oh.

BREASHEARS: ... he was severely -- he was hurt, and they put him back in the tent and his leader elected to go on without him. My sherpas descending from the high camp found him now incapacitated. They started to help him down. They got him 1,000 feet and then he did die. We refused to believe he was dead. The Taiwanese were very inexperienced and incapable of helping him.

So we went out -- Ed Viesters, Robert Schauer (ph), and myself -- hoping to find the man unconscious, and instead we found this Taiwanese climber dead on the ropes. And we brought him down. And that's a very disturbing thing to have to do.

We didn't know him. We didn't know his name. He had died basically alone, because he didn't know the sherpas who were surrounding him. They were the sherpas from my team, not from his team. He shared no language with them.

And we felt very, very bad about that, and bringing him down was tough. We had to lower him down some ice cliffs and I guided his body down.

But at the same time, all these people -- 38 or 40 people -- were headed for the high camp, and that was when I just had a bad feeling that things were a little bit out of control on this mountain.

MOSS-COANE: Describe for us the bad weather that came in, and of course, this was after some of the people made it to the top of Mount Everest and began their climb down, and this storm came up. Describe for us what a storm like that sounds like; what it feels like.

BREASHEARS: Well, I can because I have been in storms like that, although I wasn't in that storm. But I'll set the stage for you. They have now been going 60, 65 hours with three or four hours of sleep. They've been on the go that day 18 hours by nightfall with nothing to drink, nothing to eat. They've run out of oxygen, so they're hypoxic, and they're heading down, and they're more hypoxic than normal. And a storm strikes at the same time that darkness overcomes them.

So you have a very, very, very bad situation. First of all, the onset of darkness is always demoralizing and disorienting, even to a very experienced climber.

MOSS-COANE: You literally don't know where you are on the mountain?

BREASHEARS: No, you can, but who wants to be out on a great peak at 27-, 28,000 feet without light? And maybe you have your headlamp -- you can see six feet. So on top of that, the wind starts to howl and it's a fierce roar up there when that wind blows, 'cause it's not an ordinary wind. It's a jet stream wind. And it starts to blow snow horizontally -- snow that's blowing so thickly that your headlamp can't penetrate more than 15 or 20 feet of it.

So, it's dark. If your headlamp is still working, you have this limited visibility; no landmarks. You have to take off your goggles -- they're dark goggles to keep out the sun. You can't wear them at night unless they're clear. You can't walk into the wind 'cause it stings and pelts you -- the surface of your eyeball. And it's just a terrible situation to be in, outlayed on a peak in a very, very high wind in snow. It's -- it's chaotic.

MOSS-COANE: Where were you in relation, then, to the climbers that were coming down the mountain? Where were you set up?

BREASHEARS: We were at camp two. We'd been higher, but we didn't like a lot of things and we went down to wait. We had a strong team, an experienced team. We could climb up two or three times on a summit attempt, and still have the energy and resources to try again.

Once they came down and we knew what had happened, of course we abandoned, without a moment's thought, all of our filmmaking efforts. We never turned the camera on once during the tragedy. And we went back up to camp three and helped survivors coming down. And then two members, Ed Viesters and Robert Schauer went up to 25,000 feet and met Beck Weathers (ph), who was being helped down by Todd Burlson (ph) and Pete Athens (ph).

MOSS-COANE: Yeah, and Beck Weathers is the physician from Texas who was...

BREASHEARS: Right.

MOSS-COANE: ... rescued and managed to survive through, I guess -- what? -- most of the night, although barely survived. Terrible frostbite -- lost his nose; lost a hand; lost some fingers -- because of how he had to literally try to survive that night.

BREASHEARS: Yes.

MOSS-COANE: One of the other leaders, Rob Hall, was stuck up on the mountain, actually died on the mountain, but he was in radio contact. Did you actually talk with him?

BREASHEARS: Yes. We -- when we woke up that morning at camp two, knowing when we went to bed the night before that Rob was struggling with Doug Hansen at 28,700 feet. When we woke up the next morning, we found out the terrible scenario, which was Doug had died, Andy was missing, and Rob was still stuck at 28,700 feet in a fierce wind.

And we did talk to him. Mostly it was Ed Viesters, who knew him much better than I did. And he tried and tried and tried to coerce him, exhort him to get up and start moving. But then we had to start moving back up the mountain ourselves to help people who were coming down well below Rob.

MOSS-COANE: And what did his voice...

BREASHEARS: And then we lost -- well, you know, it was really -- oh, those were really sad moments.

MOSS-COANE: Yeah.

BREASHEARS: Rob's voice was very weak. He was trying to be brave. It was the kind of man he was. He wasn't complaining. But it was very hard to listen to him because everything that had happened -- you know, the effort of climbing Everest; the effort of trying to save Doug; the effort of having spent that terrible night there exposed -- was apparent in his voice. And I never really told anyone then, but when I heard his voice and I just didn't think he had a chance unless the sherpas reached him. It just...

MOSS-COANE: It sounded like a dying man's voice? He was dying.

BREASHEARS: It just sounded -- not dying. It just sounded like he was -- he had no energy, you know; that he -- I sensed that he didn't have the energy to save himself and that's why later in the day when we heard, as we made our way back up to camp three, through a radio link -- we no longer had direct contact -- when we heard that the sherpas going to rescue Rob had turned around, we knew that was it, you know. We knew he would never survive another night.

MOSS-COANE: That's filmmaker and mountain climber David Breashears. We'll talk more about climbing Mount Everest in the second half of the show.

I'm Marty Moss-Coane and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane in for Terry Gross.

Let's continue our conversation with mountain climber and filmmaker David Breashears about Mount Everest. His IMAX film about a 1996 expedition to Everest's summit just opened in New York City, and will visit other cities later this spring.

National Geographic published a book about the climb and the film called Everest: Mountain Without Mercy.

Breashears told us about helping with the rescue efforts when a violent storm erupted on Mount Everest, killing eight climbers. He and his team helped the survivors get back to camp.

Now, what kind of deliberations did you and your crew go through once this rescue was taken care of? You still had a film to make. Did you have any second thoughts? Did you think, well, maybe based on all the terrible things that have happened, we should go back and perhaps come back to this mountain another time? Or did you just say: let's go. We're here. Let's go.

BREASHEARS: Well, no, we didn't say that at all. In fact, it was a very difficult time for me. I was the leader of the team, as well as the director of the film. And we had a very moving and traumatic memorial service at base camp, and then all the teams started to leave, so we felt quite lonely.

MOSS-COANE: Yeah.

BREASHEARS: The wind continued to howl up there. The weather forecasts were all very bad and I knew I could not demand, nor would I, that my team go back up that mountain. But I did know I could order everyone home and say enough is enough, why take any more risks. But that wasn't anything I would do either. It had to be more democratic than that.

And so we talked about it and we all did a lot of soul-searching. There was a lot of sadness. There was fear of going back up knowing we would have to pass Rob Hall and Scott Fisher, our friends, frozen on the trail; maybe Doug Hansen; maybe Andy Harris.

But we did decide that our only obligations were to ourselves, not to the film. There was no pressure put on us from the executive producer who we had daily contact with via satellite telephone. So, we all said: "we're professionals; we've had an apprenticeship; we've earned our stripes." Ed Viesters said: "Everest is not a death sentence. We can climb it safely."

And so, as climbers with a love for that mountain and a love for high places, we went back up. And we went and we decided we're going back up, we might as well continue filming.

MOSS-COANE: And when you passed the bodies, the dead bodies, of some of the party, some of the members of this party, some of the leaders, I know some of you sat with them and, what, talked with them or just sat with them on the mountain. Did you do that?

BREASHEARS: Well, both Ed and I did. Ed was much closer to Rob than I was. He'd done many peaks with him. It was very, very hard for Ed. He'd known Scott as long as I had -- 20 years -- spent more time with Scott than I had. He'd known Rob not nearly that long, but they were very close from being on trips together.

When we first passed Scott, it was at night with our headlamps, and mostly I was just startled when all of a sudden there was a person in blue lying on the ground in front of me. But both Ed and I were far ahead of the team when we reached Rob on the south summit. And then Ed had to leave and I had to wait 40 minutes for my team.

And I just sat there. I really didn't know what to do, 'cause there he was on his side in the snow. His hand was out and exposed and half of his body. And mostly I was just perplexed. You know, I was -- because of what I've mentioned earlier in the program, there's not a lot of room for emotions up there. You're just simply incapable of it. Your body doesn't have the energy or the space for it.

And I just said -- I was thinking: "Rob, how could this have happened?" -- you know, and it was hallowed ground to me. You know, I just sat there.

MOSS-COANE: Did you photograph any of these bodies as you passed them?

BREASHEARS: Yes, some members of our team did, and I'm glad you asked that, because those were specific requests from the families, that we would bring back pictures. I think it helps them deal with it. You can see how they died; the position they were in; and it provides something very, very concrete in your mind.

But I'm also very pleased to say that we've received many, many offers from magazines with many thousands of dollars, and we have not allowed one of those pictures to be published, and of course you don't see them in our book. That's a -- there is a picture of some body in our book that was on the trail from another expedition. It's not from one of our members.

But, we did take pictures and we have not allowed them to be used by any form of media.

MOSS-COANE: There's been a lot of publicity about this particular climb -- a television movie; several books; your IMAX film coming out. Do you see this as a cautionary tale? Do you hope that those foolhardy people who think that they can climb Mount Everest when they really have no business on the mountain, might turn back? Might think twice?

BREASHEARS: You know, I've thought a lot about that, and I don't think that's going to happen because Everest was starting to be this worn-out old everyman's mountain, and it was no longer something you could walk into a cocktail party and chink your glass and -- "oh, I've climbed Everest."

But now -- now it's the killer mountain again. It's the mountain without mercy.

MOSS-COANE: Right.

BREASHEARS: Now when -- if you go out and climb Everest, people are going to talk about it, 'cause they've read the books; they've seen the movies. So you know, for a mountain that had kind of been knocked off of its pedestal years ago in terms of it being an elite, special achievement, it's now been placed back on its pedestal. And I don't think that any of these books or any of these movies are going to do anything but heighten the aura and the prestige of climbing Everest.

MOSS-COANE: So you think there'll be more traffic, more climbers working their way up to that summit?

BREASHEARS: There were just as many this year. I was there this year...

MOSS-COANE: Yeah.

BREASHEARS: ... a year later, and this year five people died. And you know what? They all died climbing too late into the day...

MOSS-COANE: Interesting.

BREASHEARS: ... once again. It's always happened and it's going to continue to happen and we've just -- all we've had here was a big accident that was well-publicized in 1996.

MOSS-COANE: Well David Breashears, I want to thank you very much for joining us on the show today. Thanks very much.

BREASHEARS: It's been my pleasure.

MOSS-COANE: Filmmaker and mountain climber David Breashears' IMAX film about climbing Mount Everest just opened in New York City and will visit other cities later this spring.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest: David Breashears
High: Cinematographer David Breashears. The first American to climb Mount Everest twice, he attempted in 1996 to film from Mount Everest's summit on an IMAX camera. But Breashears had to put down his camera to help with the rescue mission of a group of climbers who were part of another expedition at the time, and who were caught on the mountain in a May blizzard. (Chronicled by John Krakauer in his book, "Into Thin Air.") Brashears' film of his own expedition is titled "Everest," and will be released this month.
Spec: Movie Industry; Travel; David Breashears; IMAX; Everest
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1998 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1998 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Everest
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030602NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Stanely Donen
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:35

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF SCENE FROM MOTION PICTURE "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN")

GENE KELLY, ACTOR/DANCER/SINGER, SINGING PREAMBLE TO "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN: Do, do, do, do, de, do, do, do ...

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: The co-director of "Singin' in the Rain" Stanley Donen will be presented an honorary at this year's Academy Awards ceremony on March 23. In a moment, Donen will tell us about filming this scene.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF SCENE FROM MOTION PICTURE "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN")

KELLY, SINGING:
I'm singin' in the rain
Just singin' in the rain
What a glorious feelin'
I'm happy again
I'm laughin' at clouds
So dark up above
The sun's in my heart
And I'm ready for love

Let the stormy clouds chase
Every one from the place
Come on with the rain
I've a smile on my face
I'll walk down the lane
With a happy refrain
Just singin'
Singin' in the rain

Dancin' in the rain
la de la de la la

I'm happy again

I'm singin' and dancin' in the rain ...

MOSS-COANE: Gene Kelly gave Stanley Donen his big break. Kelly chose Donen to be his assistant in a Broadway production of "Best Foot Forward." Soon after, when they both in Hollywood, Kelly brought the 19-year-old Donen to Columbia Pictures to work on "Cover Girl," the movie that made Kelly a star.

Kelly and Donen went on to co-direct the films "On The Town," "It's Always Fair Weather," and "Singin' in the Rain." Donen also directed Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding" and "Funny Face." Donen's other films include "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees," "Charade," "Two for the Road," and "Bedazzled."

Donen was sometimes called "the boy wonder of MGM" for his ability to choreograph scenes that had his stars dancing with a cartoon character, dancing on the ceiling, and he even filmed Gene Kelly dancing with himself.

Terry Gross spoke with Stanley Donen in 1996 and asked him about the rain and the puddles in his most famous production number.

STANLEY DONEN, FILM DIRECTOR AND CHOREOGRAPHER: People believe these things happen spontaneously. Certainly dance numbers are anything but spontaneous. They are worked out in great detail over quite a long period of time. And so we decided where, how, what he would dance, how he could dance, how quickly he would dance, what the steps were, where he would be. We rehearsed on the street and so on, and we said "he'll splash in a puddle here."

Well, there had to be a puddle there. So we had to chop out the cement and make a little hole, and then it would fill up with water. And he would splash in that puddle there. And since dance is very specific, and when you do it the same way every time, you end up in the same spot. We placed the puddles where they were necessary.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Did you make the temperature of the water warm so that Gene Kelly's muscles wouldn't be a problem?

DONEN: It was not necessary. No, on the contrary, it was so hot in there it would have been nice ...

GROSS: Oh.

DONEN: ... if the water had been cool. We were in mid-summer and we were under black canvas, so -- in the bright daylight. We didn't shoot it at night in real night. And the sun beating down on a black canvas overhead with the water pouring down on him -- it was like a sauna in there.

GROSS: Hmmm.

DONEN: Would have been better to have refrigerated water in that case.

GROSS: Now, you work with Gene Kelly. You also work with Fred Astaire on the films Royal Wedding and Funny Face. Did you have a different approach to shooting each of them, since their approach to dance was different?

DONEN: Yes.

GROSS: Could you describe the difference in shooting them?

DONEN: Well because Gene's movements are basically athletic, and the force of the movement is important to -- to get the thrill of watching him dance, it's harder to produce that on film because film is not able to -- to get forceful movement because it's only a two-dimensional medium. And you need two eyes to see sharp, hard, forward and back or sideways movement. You need three dimensions.

And therefore I tried to make up for that lack in the way I photographed him, which meant trying to make it a more dynamic move by the placement or movement of the camera or lack of movement of the camera.

With Fred, you want to get the delicacy of the movement so it's another way of focusing the eye in this two-dimensional medium on his physical, you know, subtle movements.

GROSS: There's a dance scene I want you to talk about that's very mysterious when you see it. It's the dancing on the ceiling sequence -- the sequence that your biography is named after. This is a Fred Astaire dance number from Royal Wedding.

DONEN: From Royal Wedding.

GROSS: Yeah, from Royal Wedding. So -- I mean, he dances on the floor and the walls and the ceiling on this. What -- did you do to create that illusion?

DONEN: We had to build a room inside a wheel or a barrel if you like, which turned slowly and in which the camera turned with the room, as well as the lights and everything in the room. And its turning had to be so controlled and gentle, both in timing and in movement, that the things didn't shake or didn't throw Fred Astaire around. And the camera had to be fixed to its position so it turned exactly as the room did, and so did the lights. Otherwise, you would see the room turning as the lights stayed still -- you'd see shadows moving and so on.

And then the wall, if we were now going to Fred dancing from the floor to the side wall, slowly the side wall becomes the floor. And he's actually dancing on that floor, which is now the wall of the room. But since the camera turns with it, the camera doesn't know that the set has moved in that sense. It doesn't see outside the room. So to the camera, it's still the side wall and it looks like Fred has actually gone to the side wall.

And that's repeated on the ceiling, the other side and so on.

GROSS: So did the choreography have to be done in such a way as to coincide with the turning of the room?

DONEN: Yes, and the turning of the room had to coincide with the choreography and so on. They had to marry each other and that only could happen with trial and error.

GROSS: You say in your biography that the most difficult part in a film musical is making that transition from talking into dancing or talking into singing. And I could see how that would be the most difficult -- the most difficult part.

What are some of the ways you've gotten around that in production numbers -- to try to make a smooth transition?

DONEN: Well, we try any number of ways. In the number we were just talking about -- in "All the World To Me" is the name of the song where he dances around the room -- you hear him singing, but actually his lips aren't moving in the beginning. So it's almost as though his singing is an underscoring of the scene. And then after the verse of the song, he starts singing -- theoretically singing it with his mouth.

So that's one technique. There are numbers of ways I've tried to do it. I've tried it sometimes with the character's back to the camera. You hear him singing, but you don't see him singing. Sometimes in Singin' in the Rain, we had a -- we had a little vamp which was written which sort of eased him from dialogue into song. The vamp ahead of the song was written by Roger Eatons (ph). Most people are familiar with it -- it goes: (SINGING) do, do, do, do, do, do -- that little vamp. He sings that and it seems to bridge the moment.

GROSS: Yeah, and in "Moses Supposes," they start talking about that before ...

DONEN: In Moses Supposes -- that talking the lyric -- that's right. And then the music joins the talk. So there are, I hope, endless ways of avoiding a catastrophe at that moment.

GROSS: I want to ask you about your musical Funny Face, which starred Fred Astaire as a fashion photographer and Audrey Hepburn as a young -- a young woman who is kind of bullied into becoming a fashion model.

DONEN: Antagonistic to fashion.

GROSS: Yes, yes. And she really wants to be a kind of beatnik. And anyways, they of course fall in love -- you know, Hepburn and Fred Astaire, although he's really much older than she is, which isn't spoken about in the film. But how were they paired together, Astaire and Hepburn?

DONEN: By -- you mean by our casting (unintelligible)?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

DONEN: Well, who would have -- we just thought: Who are the best people to play these parts? Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn -- and lo and behold, we got them. That was the unbelievable part of it. We got Audrey Hepburn after a great deal of trouble because she -- when we sent her the script, she said yes, she would like to be in the movie. But MGM -- it was -- we prepared the script at MGM. MGM couldn't get past -- she was under contract to Paramount. And MGM could not get Paramount to lend Audrey Hepburn's services to MGM to make Funny Face.

So the picture looked like it was -- it was a dead issue, when it occurred to me and Roger Eatons to -- to see if we could get Paramount to buy the picture and take us to Paramount to make the picture. They had Audrey. So we went to MGM and said: "Can we try to get Paramount to buy this situation from you?" And the studio said: "Well, if they'll pay us enough money, yes." Although they were going to lose it all.

Nevertheless, Paramount paid them and borrowed Roger Eatons and me to go to Paramount to make the picture. That way, we got Audrey Hepburn. Once we had the picture at Paramount, we asked Fred Astaire: Would he like to make this picture with Audrey Hepburn and us? And we -- Roger knew him well and I had directed him previously in Royal Wedding. And he said he'd love to.

So that's how we got them together.

GROSS: Now, Audrey Hepburn, who wrote the introduction to your biography, says that she was so nervous about dancing with Astaire she actually lost her breakfast. She -- she threw up the morning of the first performance together. Were you aware of how nervous she was?

DONEN: Yes. It is terrifying to -- to work with Fred Astaire, particularly if you're a dancer, as Audrey Hepburn is -- was a very trained dancer. So Fred Astaire was everyone's idol. And suddenly she's thrust into being his equal. Of course, it's terrifying for her.

GROSS: And was he ...

DONEN: Very gentle, very helpful, very -- he had been through this with other people that were equally terrified of working with him. So he -- but he loved Audrey, as everyone did.

MOSS-COANE: On March 23, Stanley Donen will receive an honorary award at the Oscars for a body of work the Academy said was marked by grace, elegance, wit, and visual innovation.

The producer, director, choreographer spoke with Terry Gross in 1996.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF GENE KELLY PERFORMING "MOSES SUPPOSES")

KELLY, SINGING:
Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously
But Moses, he knowses as poses on a roses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be
Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously
A Mose is a Mose
A rose is a rose
A toes is a toes.
Humpty de doody doodle

Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously
For Moses, he knowses his toeses
Aren't roses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be.

Moses, Moses,
Eeny, meeny, miny, Moses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be.
A Mose is a Mose
A rose is a rose
Is a rose
Is a rose, but Moses supposes his toeses
Couldn't be a lily or a taffy daffodilly
It's gotta be a rose 'cause it rhymes with Mose

Moses, Moses, Moses

SOUNDBITE OF TAP DANCING

MOSS-COANE: Coming up, "The Big Lebowski."

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Film Director and choreographer STANLEY DONEN. At the upcoming Academy Awards he'll be given an honorary Oscar for what the Academy calls "a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit, and visual innovation." DONEN directed "On the Town," "Singin' in the Rain," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Funny Girl," and more. He collaborated with Gene Kelly as dance director on such films as "Cover Girl," and "Anchors Away." In 1996 his biography was published "Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his Movies" (Knopf), written by Stephen M. Silverman. (REBROADCAST from 2/8/96)
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Stanely Donen
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Stanley Donen
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030603NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Big Lebowsky
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: Two years ago, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen had their biggest success with the film "Fargo." They have a new film called "The Big Lebowsky" starring Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.

Have the Coen brothers scored again? Our film critic John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Back when Joel and Ethan Coen first hit it big with "Blood Simple," one of their producers told me proudly: "These guys make movies for the hip-eousie (ph)." He was right. The Coens' movies were filled with violent jokes, visual gags that called attention to their own cleverness and characters that the audience could feel superior to. They appealed to an insider's smugness.

With Fargo, however, they seem to have matured. That movie had a new-found humanity, a tenderness even, and in Frances McDormand's small-town cop, an authentic moral center. Perhaps the Coens really did believe in something after all.

Now comes "The Big Lebowksy" and the question is: Was Fargo just an aberration? The movie is set in L.A. during the Gulf War. Jeff Bridges stars as Jeff Lebowsky, otherwise known as "the dude" -- a bearded, long-haired '60s holdover who has no job and no ambition. He devotes his life to bowling and getting high. When he's not smoking dope, he's guzzling white russians.

When some crooks mistake him for a Pasadena millionaire also named Jeff Lebowsky, the dude is thrown into a noir adventure that's quintessentially Coen-ish in its shaggy-doggedness. Along with his best friend Walter Subjack (ph), a blustering Viet vet played by John Goodman, the dude finds himself involved with a kidnapped socialite, a missing ransom payment, assorted goofy thugs, and a predatory feminist artist who's played by Julianne Moore.

Through it all, the dude wants nothing more than to get back to the lumpin' life he loves: hanging out, bowling with his buddies, and of course getting stoned, man.

Like their hero, the Coens have virtually no interest in the criminal events that surround the dude. Rather, the movie is a loose sloppy collection of cheap gags: the dude dropping a burning joint onto his lap; Walter braying profanities as he smashes in car windows; a rival bowler named Jesus, played by John Traturro (ph) doing obscene hip-thrusting dances.

Although "The Big Lebowksy" boasts three or four big laughs, it's just crawling with mirthless jokes about things like urination and it never comes close to proper comic timing. In fact, the movie itself seems stoned, as in the scene where the dude first meets the surly millionaire who shares his name.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF SCENE FROM MOTION PICTURE "THE BIG LEBOWSKY")

JEFF BRIDGES, ACTOR: I'm not trying to scam anybody here. You know, I'm just ...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You were just looking for a hand-out like every other ... Are you employed, Mr. Lebowsky?

BRIDGES: Wait, let me -- let me explain something to you. I am not Mr. Lebowsky. You're Mr. Lebowsky. I'm the dude. So that's what you call me, you know? That or "his dudeness" or "duder" or, you know, "el duderino" if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

ACTOR: Are you employed, sir?

BRIDGES: Employed?

LAUGHTER

POWERS: Although "The Big Lebowksy" made me long for the old school craftsmanship of Cheech and Chong, the movie does feature a superb performance by Jeff Bridges -- to my mind, our greatest working screen actor. Against the odds, Bridges triumphs over the cartoonish script and gives the scroffulous dude an inner life. He's a man-child whose sense of decency keeps struggling to make itself felt, only to be swamped by his addled desire to take it easy.

Passive and pliant, he's akin to the tumbleweed we see at the beginning of the movie being blown across the desert to L.A.

Like David Letterman, the Coens have always had a weakness for making us laugh at everything in the name of nothing. When you try to pin down what "The Big Lebowksy" is actually saying, you're told that you're missing the point; that the movie's being ironic. Yet there's a difference between irony anchored in real convictions -- think of Lenny Bruce's exposes of American hypocrisy -- and the kind of free-floating irony found here, where the details don't add up to anything.

The dude and Walter are classic '60s stereotypes -- the mellow hippie and the nutso Viet vet. And you may find yourself asking: "Are the Coens trying to say something about the '60s?"

At the end, you're still asking. And why does the action take place during the Gulf War? Is this a commentary on American apathy, since nobody in the movie seems to notice the war? Or is that simply when the brothers first wrote the script? There's just no way of telling.

For in "The Big Lebowksy", the Coens are up to their old tricks. They've made a comedy so hip and knowing that it doesn't know where it stands on anything.

MOSS-COANE: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

For Terry Gross, I'm Marty Moss-Coane.

Dateline: John Powers; Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Film critic John powers reviews "The Big Lebowsky."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Big Lebowsky
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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