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Untold Tales of Hollywood #39

Film #12: First Blood (1981)
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Production designed by Wolf Kroeger

I got a call from my Conan the Barbarian line producer Buzz Feitshans. He wanted to hire me to storyboard a new action film he was producing, First Blood. It was co-written by Sylvester Stallone, who would also star in the film. Out offices would be in Vancouver, British Columbia; we would be shooting in and around the BC town of Hope. The director was Ted Kotcheff. I had just seen his film North Dallas Forty and was knocked out by it. I have no interest in football whatsoever, so I considered my liking it quite an achievement. The executive producer (one of our money guys) was Andrew Vajna.

They flew me up to Vancouver where I promptly made my first mistake: I told the truth.

When checking through Canadian customs, I was asked the purpose of my visit.

“I’m working on a film here.”

BOOM! Virtual sirens went off and I was hustled to another room. I should have answered, “I’m on vacation and plan to spend a lot of money here as a tourist.” Instead, I was perceived as a thief, here to steal a job from some poor Canadian. Buzz got called and he sent one of the show’s fixers to straighten things out. When I got to our offices, the film crew looked up at me like I was an idiot, then resumed their work.

First Blood was an action picture with plenty of action. I was hired to storyboard the action sequences.

Initially, Ted Kotcheff, the director, was not happy that I had been hired. He felt as if I was impinging upon his turf as a director. I put him at ease.

“Look, Ted — I’m here to serve you. This is your film; you direct me. If I’m not telling the story the way you would, just let me know and I’ll change the imagery. If you want to experiment and try something out, then let’s do it. If we find out it doesn’t work, all we’ve done is wasted some bits of paper and a little time — not hundreds of thousands of dollars in film and crew expenses.”

Ted at first seemed greatly relieved — then truly excited by the possibilities. We began working together very closely and happily.

I asked line producer Buzz Feitshans why he always hires a storyboard artist for his films.

“When the film is in production and we’re shooting, the director on average is getting three hours of sleep per night. There are some days when the director shows up totally fried. When that happens, we shoot the boards.”

Buzz also did something else I found to be really smart. Everyone in the crew gets a daily call sheet. It tells them what’s shooting that day, where it’s taking place and who and what will be needed on set. Buzz would print the storyboards of what we would be shooting that day on the back of the call sheet, creating a visual shorthand for the entire cast and crew, saving enormous amounts of time and, therefore, money. Brilliant!

I asked Buzz why he hired me in particular. Except for Conan the Barbarian, I did not have a lot of real film making experience.

“Because you’re cheap.” (I was being paid what Buzz had been paying me on Conan the Barbarian)

Producer Andy Vajna drove me to the sets being built in Hope. It was a long drive, so we had some long conversations. He explained that he didn’t give a damn about the “art” of film making — he just wanted to make what we in the business call “popcorn movies” or hits. Andy told me he was all about making lots and lots of money.

“Couldn’t we do both?” I asked. “Why not strive to make great films that are also incredibly popular?” said the naive storyboard kid.

Andy, originally from Budapest, had a house in Hong Kong (I believe some of his early films were martial arts movies). He loved Hong Kong and claimed it hosted the best restaurants there of any cuisine you would care to choose.

“Best Italian food? Hong Kong. Best seafood? Hong Kong. Best hamburgers? Hong Kong.”

In Hope, I met production designer Wolf Kroeger. We hit it off right away. Wolf treated this green kid (me) as if I was a long-time fellow professional. I deeply admired his sets for Robert Altman‘s Popeye. I had very mixed feelings when it came to Altman and his films, though (loved his early stuff, hated his later stuff), and Wolf felt much the same way. His tales of working with Altman explained and illuminated a lot of the suspicions I had regarding that director.

I visited locations outside of Hope with the crew. I learned a lot from our great cinematographer Andrew Laszlo. He let me look through his viewfinder as Ted explained a shot he wanted to do of Rambo running up to an unseen cliff edge. Using the viewfinder, I panned across the ridge. Laszlo saw what I was doing and gently corrected my camera motion. Instead of a straight pan across, Andy slightly rotated the lens to put us in Rambo’s shoes and get the sense and feeling of a much more dizzying experience on top of the cliff face.

Here are two sets of some of my First Blood storyboards:

1 thought on “Untold Tales of Hollywood #39

  1. Cool! I don’t think I knew you worked on that. Love the boards!

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