New Documentary Reviewed

Seydor on Peckinpah

Editors Guild member Paul Seydor ('Tin Cup', 'White Men Can't Jump') has directed, written and edited a new documentary on Sam Peckinpah.

by Richard Gentner

SECTIONS:

Film Discovered in Warner Vaults

 

Recently 70 minutes of 16mm black and white footage, shot during three days of principal photography on 'The Wild Bunch', were discovered in the vaults at Warner Brothers. Considered useless, no one could figure out what to do with it until it was brought to the attention of Guild member editor Paul Seydor, an expert on Peckinpah and his work. He immediately saw the possibilities inherent in the material and took on the project as a labor of love.

He had the following elements to work with: the 16mm footage, which he foleyed, stills, access to the restored director's cut, Jerry Fielding's original music, and his own imagination.

He was limited by budget and the fact that almost every member of the cast and crew are dead, which meant traditional documentary interviews were impossible. Seydor took this obstacle and turned it into an asset. By using voices only, his film has a haunting quality to it. He chose Nick Redman as his narrator, whose British accent contrasts perfectly against the other voices deployed, and he cast Ed Harris as the voice of Sam Peckinpah.

The result of his efforts is 'The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage', a unique 34 minute documentary whose very structural shape seems to spring effortlessly from the elements at hand, as if the film had made itself. Yet it is very carefully built. Seydor's succinct writing, sure-handed directing and razor-sharp editing make it appear seamless.

Beginning With the End

The film opens with the black and white footage. The first shot is a POV of the landscape seen through a bug splattered windshield, followed by a series of traveling shots, all underscored by festive Mexican music. The narration gets us immediately on board by locating us in time (March of 1968), space (Parras, Mexico) and situation (Peckinpah directing 'The Wild Bunch').

The first scene set up is the Bunch's walk into the face of death to reclaim Angel. Here Seydor stresses Sam's gift for improvisation with Sam saying, "No, no, wait..I wanna do this walk thing". The b&w footage, voices, narration and music build to a point that thrusts the Bunch through the crack in the wall, then we are literally blasted into the first use of color footage. It's so powerful that it feels like the cinematic equivalent to having your ears pinned back, sitting in the wind tunnel at Moffett Field. The sequence concludes with Pike's line, "We want Angel". Cut to a b&w shot of Jamie Sanchez checking his make-up in a mirror.

Using more b&w footage, Seydor opens up the structure. Writer Jim Silke emphasizes the importance of back story and Ed Harris delineates what Sam's intent was with his depiction of violence. We see Mapache pick up Angel, put a knife to his neck, then, as Fielding's music swells, match cut to color for the slitting of Angel's throat. It continues through the killing of Mapache, then back to b&w, we see the Bunch in their crouched positions and hear a very quiet, off-screen voice say, "Cut".

Shifting the Emphasis

B&w and color footage of "the Battle of Bloody Porch" is effectively intercut as Gordon Dawson talks about his "uniform repair shop". Composer Jerry Fielding describes the story as a love affair between two men, which sets up what is the most poignantly dramatic moment of the film, when Deke Thornton reaches down and takes Pike's pistol out of his holster. It's as if, emotionally, the whole film has been heading for that moment, and, given the form of this documentary, you really feel it.

Fielding continues, "It was a love affair on Sam's part with the time and the place...the real estate. It's not about gunshots and open wounds and children getting blown to shreds". Dissolve to b&w shots and we hear Harris as Sam, "We tried to recreate an environment, an era. I was trying to tell a story about bad men in changing times". Dissolve to a still on Sam's back that zooms in. "'The Wild Bunch' is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico, the strange thing is, you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line".

Pressing Forward by Going Backward

Music is prelapped and we cut to color as The Bunch rides out of Angel's village. What really struck me here was in the middle of this predominantly green scene, a woman hands Dutch a red flower, which seems to leap off the screen visually and link my heart viscerally as we hear Sam say, "I felt [this scene] was the turning point of the picture in terms of the humanity of the Bunch. I feel that if you can ride out with them and feel it, then you can die with them and feel it". That flower definitely does it for me.

Proper Preparation

In color, the Bunch arrives with their loot, where Old Sykes has been waiting for them. William Holden talks about the chaos of the first rehearsal and hearing Sam say, "in this very calm but menacing voice", [cut to a still of Sam sitting in his director's chair, a disapproving look on his face, his fingers intertwined in front of his mouth] "Gentleman, you were hired to work as actors [emphasis on the second syllable] and I expect actors to know their lines when they come to work. Now, I'm willing to give you twenty minutes and anyone can go wherever he wants to learn his lines, but when you come back, if you can't be an actor, you will be replaced." The collaboration on this line reading between Seydor as director and Ed Harris as actor is as subtle as it is impeccable.

Back to color as Pike [Holden] barks, "I don't know a damn thing except I either lead this Bunch or I end it right now". The voice of Sharon Peckinpah compares Holden to her father, then takes us back to the village where Pike points at Angel and says, "Either you learn to live with it or we leave you here". Sharon continues, "Oh Dad, I must have heard things like that a million times from you". Under a pan across children smiling and clapping the sound cross fades to the original soundtrack: "We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us...[Cut to Holden]...perhaps the worst of us most of all". Seydor freezes the frame, but lets the sound from the film continue, "You know what we are then [cut to a still of Sam and Holden together] "Just so, the both of you" and Jerry Fielding's heartfelt music holds for a moment then rings out. This slight, but incredibly effective manipulation of the film itself testifies to the diversity of Seydor's elegant solutions to aesthetic problems, which are never redundant or rote, but surprisingly fresh and constantly renewing.

Building Bridges

After Borgnine pays tribute to Peckinpah's talent as an inspirational director, we are taken to the final scene to be shot, the spectacular explosion of the bridge which climaxes the Bunch's looting of the train. Here some of the most fascinating behind the scenes b&w footage is released, while the narrator sets up the problems, complexity and danger involved in filming the stunt. Screenwriter Walon Green says, "'Christ, you're not gonna blow up another bridge' but Sam had a good retort. 'It's not just blowing up a bridge, it's the way you blow up a bridge'. And he was right, it was terrific on the screen." Seydor stretches out the moment, creating a spine-tingling sense of anticipation, then, at just the right second, he releases the finely cut color film, which is absolutely breath-taking. "When it was over," Bud Hulburd, the special effects supervisor remarked, "I'd just had the opportunity to hang a Rembrandt. It'll probably never happen to me again".

Endings as Beginnings

We return to b&w coverage to observe the wrap of the shooting. Narration and other voices gently take us out of the terrain and, after just witnessing the making of what is perhaps the greatest film of all time, one is left with the bittersweet feeling that you don't want this documentary to end. In a way, it doesn't. We come back, full circle, as Seydor repeats two of the b&w images from the opening. One of Sam, seen from above, putting on his sunglasses, followed by the shot of him walking across the frame, moving his hands with self-assured directorial control as we hear the narrator for the final time, "Now, suddenly it was over, and nothing like it would ever come his way again. After the cast and crew departed, he wandered off to an isolated corner of the sound stage and wept." The frame freezes and we hear, "The end of a picture is always the end of a life - Sam Peckinpah." But it's not over yet.

Creative Use of Titles

The tail credit sequence is composed of stills and sound bites from the film. Here Seydor manages to create multiple meanings plus link everyone involved in the production with this technique. It's reminiscent of Sam's opening titles, which functioned similarly, just heading in a different direction, in instead of out. The final treat is, under a photo of Sam as a child with his brother Denver, we hear Sam's actual voice, "I remember when I was a kid, I suppose six or seven, I learned the poem by Tennyson, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' by heart." Dissolve into a still of Sam next to a Panavision camera. "By the time I was 11, we must have had fifty kids reenacting that famous battle. We used to arm each other with rubber guns and swords and storm the heights time and time again and, [cut back to the CU of Sam's face] quite possibly, I haven't stopped yet." The final title burns in:

SAM PECKINPAH 1925-1984.


 
Reprinted from
The Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter
Vol. 17, No. 5 - Nov/Dec 1996

 
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