King Kong 1976
The Unglamorous Side of Making a Movie
submitted by Leta Learn
Notes from the book The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong by Bruce Bahrenburg
A realistic look into the danger and disaster that plagued the production of King Kong
“The film is successful because the audience can identify with what is happening on the screen. The people may never have experienced the emotions and situations themselves, but at least they dream they could have, and that is the secret of all art.”
—Jack Solomon, Sound Mixer on King Kong
Early in 1975, Paramount and film producer Dino De Laurentiis have come together to discuss future film projects. As De Laurentiis recalls it, conversation during a meeting with chairman and chief executive officer, Barry Diller, turned to the possibility of making a monster movie. De Laurentiis said he knew the monster movie he wanted to do. He proceeded to tell Diller about a poster his teenage daughter Francesca, had hanging on her bedroom wall in their New York apartment. Each morning Dino would stop in to see her before she left for school, and staring down on them was that hairy figure hugging the top of the Empire State Building. King Kong! The idea grabbed Diller. Green light. The stop-motion photographic process thrilled 1933 cinemagoers, but the process caused the ape’s movements to be jerky and his relative size often varied from scene to scene. De Laurentiis intended to keep his Kong’s movements fluid and made the decision to use a man in an ape suit as well as a 40-foot mechanical monster. He also made the story contemporary, presenting the men on the jungle island as oil explorers, which gave him a chance to develop a sub-theme: the rape of the environment by greedy men.
January: The Shooting Begins
In the darkness of the first night of shooting, the tankers and the skeleton crews loading cargo and driving trucks beneath dim orange lights look like movable toys under a Christmas tree. Behind a high wire fence at the dock nearest the open sea, the battleship-gray, three deck Petrox Explorer rides placidly at anchor. From a distance the reflection of waves slapping against the gray prow seems to be real. But it is as artificial as the wisps of smoke generated by a hidden machine. The ship, which is on loan from the United States Navy for $250,000, must sail back in three weeks time. Jeff Bridges has his first big scene. Jeff has a reputation for being friendly and considerate. Prescott, the young scientist he plays, has had access to information from Washington that there is something more than oil on Skull Island, and he is going to stow away on the Petrox Explorer to find out what it is.
Last Week In January: Water, Water Everywhere
It is not the most spectacular way for an emerging star to be exposed to the reality of filmmaking. But there is Jessica Lange in a slinky black dress, playing unconscious Dwan in a rubber raft, having been repeatedly drenched with a bucket of cold water on the coldest day moments before the camera is turned on her for each take. When the Petrox Explorer comes upon Dwan’s lifeboat, the women starved men—jumping up and down—fall all over each other to be the first to rescue her. Jessica learns from her hair stylist that while she was drifting alone on the water, the camera crew had been keeping an eye on a shark circling her lifeboat.
February: Slowdown and Shutdown
Since neither the monster nor its mechanical hand are ready, the company has been in the studio shooting interior sets of the ship’s cabin. A languor has overtaken almost everyone. Waiting is a fact of life on a movie set—it is expected—but abnormally long waits can be intolerable. De Laurentiis’ Kong is adrift. There are reports that strong wave action has washed away a section of the beach on the north coast of Hawaii that was to be used in the filming.
Late February: March: Hawaii, Aloha
At dawn the first helicopter lifts off from a make-shift heliport. The chopper will take the first essential crew and pieces of equipment to the valley. Within an hour and a half, four helicopters have delivered fifty cast and crew and more than two tons of equipment, from cameras and props, to sound boom and boxed lunches. The company is staying at the Hanalei Beach and Racquet Club, which must have seemed like a good idea from the brochure. But the money apparently ran out before the club was completed, and it is only a shell of its proposed luxury. Spiders that came to visit the rooms and died there remain suspended in graceful rigor mortis within gigantic silvery webs over the windows and beds. A variety of other tropical bugs have found suitable final resting places in the sinks and bathtubs. The maid service has been improvised by a group of young female dropouts who live in beach shacks around the bay. They believe it is enough to make the bed—upon request—provide fresh towels, and run a rag over the mirror above the sink. The restaurant that was promised the company is nonexistent. After a few days of complaints from the crew about having nothing to eat before going on location, a kitchen is opened and eggs and coffee are served in the morning. But at night when the crew returns, there is no food.
The cast and crew finish with the valley, having completed a shot of the Petrox Explorer crew walking up the valley floor. In the scene are Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, René Auberjonois, Julius Harris, Jack O’Halloran, Jorge Moreno, and Mario Gallo. An airlift will now take the men—Jessica is not needed—to a desolate ridge in the neighboring Kalalau Valley. Landing on the ridge is an exercise in terror for anyone afraid of flying. From a hundred feet, with the best visibility, the ridge is almost nonexistent. The landing point resembles the edge of a razor blade leaving one passenger with his stomach in his mouth. By the end of the week, the company realizes it should have packed clothing longer than the brief four or five days scheduled. The reason for coming to Kauai was to film “environment” scenes of the beautiful jungle island that was Kong’s habitat. But schedules change and soon other scenes are added. The work day becomes like a wartime commando operation: forces move in swiftly by copter, scenes are shot on the run, the company moves to another location. To have Kong out by Christmas makes every day’s work a kind of madness. It is a frantic, unsettling schedule, one guaranteed to wear down the smoothest of temperaments. The movie must get made: it is the ultimate justification for all the good and bad that goes on during a film production.
Finished with the valleys, the company now heads for one of the loveliest beaches in the world, Cathedral Beach. Over the next few days things begin to fall apart. Jack O’Halloran, horsing around on the beach, slips and falls on a rock. The flesh over his eye is cut open, and he has to be taken to the hospital by helicopter. It takes thirty-five stitches to close the wound, but O’Halloran works the next day, the stitches covered with makeup. There is also the problem of getting the boats with the fog machines to the sea off Cathedral Island. These boats brought from Los Angeles are not suitable for riding in waves that reach the height of ten or twelve feet. Camaraderie and cooperation of the cast and crew help move the boats to safety. The company really does not have the luxury of being able to wait for calm seas.
March: The Supertanker
No company had ever filmed in the areas of the Na Pali coast where King Kong did—and no company had ever shot aboard a supertanker. But after the return from Kauai, the seventy-member Kong crew and cast show up for shooting aboard the Susanne Onstad. Twenty to thirty miles out to sea, the three-day shooting aboard the supertanker couldn’t go more smoothly. There are no major temperamental flare-ups, no gas explosions, no crew lost at sea. Only when the company comes ashore does the fate of King Kong seem uncertain. It is not an idle rumor that the movie is in serious trouble, that the company is having difficulty building a workable forty-foot mechanical monster and keeping ahead of new sets. And it’s not a simple question of a temporarily layoff; some people are saying that King Kong has already gotten to be too expensive and will have to be closed down permanently. The social leveler in the movie industry—the unemployment line. The day after shooting on the Susanne Onstad ends, one rumor is confirmed: the production will shut down temporarily. No one wants to believe the production is over for good before it has really gotten started. Besides, even the crew wants to see the forty-foot King Kong move.
End of March: The Shaping of Kong and the Raising of the Wall
Despite the publicity
which could lead you to believe that somewhere on the Metro lot there exists a
huge, automated Kong—he does not exist. The full size Kong is only a pile of
unassembled wires and valves laid out on a very long table. The first piece of
machinery completed is the rudimentary hand. However, its fingers are contorted
in an arthritic-looking fist, and they cannot be pried apart by the normal
electronic impulses in the hydraulic system. Force has to be applied—and then,
majestically, the middle finger rises straight as an arrow from the other bent fingers. An appropriate gesture considering the state of production. Between top brass and the troops there is no communication about the picture’s current position. Department heads are pushing ahead on sets that may never be used. If the mammoth Wall cannot be finished in reasonable time, the daily cost of extended layoff may prohibit the eventual resumption of production. When a production as costly as King Kong shuts down, it is best to keep it quiet. But a production with a huge staff and crew is bound to have its share of blabbermouths, and Rona Barrett is on television telling America over breakfast from coast to coast that King Kong is in desperate trouble, that it has closed. The national and Hollywood press begin running snide stories. De Laurentiis maintains a dignified silence.
The public relations aspect of Kong is of no moment to the men building Kong, and they go about their jobs as if there isn’t a doubt about Kong’s fate. Designs are approved and assembling pieces of aluminum into a skeleton for the monster begin. As Kong is beginning to shape up, so is the Wall. It is one of the most elaborate sets erected on a Hollywood back lot. The Wall is a huge structure built by the Skull Island natives to protect themselves. To appease Kong, the natives constructed an altar on the jungle side of the Wall, and there they leave beautiful native girls as sacrifices to him. The Wall ends up forty-seven feet high and five hundred feet long. It will be finished by the time the company resumes shooting in mid-April. One night a frightening call comes from the production office. A man’s voice says there will be a sniper on the lot tonight. A search is immediately made but it can only be haphazard, considering the vast number of potential hiding places on the lot. No one is found. Filming continues but apprehension is not easily dispelled. Then a few nights later, a bomb threat is phoned in to the production office. Again a search is made of the grounds. No sniper ever appears, no bomb ever explodes. Soon the incidents are forgotten in the very real, ever-present danger of missing the Christmas deadline.
April–May: The Girl in the Hand
right hand is the first part of his body to be finished. It will be Jessica’s
principal acting partner for the rest of the film. The arm will seize Jessica
off of the Skull Island natives’ sacrificial altar. Jessica is worried about
the safety features in the giant hand. Off by herself, Jessica is thinking, “If
that hand’s off target when it comes down, it’s the end of me.” The stunt girl,
Sunny Woods, goes into the hand for one last technical run-through. There is no
warning—no sharp snap, no grinding of gears. But suddenly the wrist goes limp
and plunges downward. The hand is obviously broken at the wrist. Someone pushes
another jack, and the hand lowers.
The men pry open the fingers and release the unhurt but dazed Sunny. It takes two weeks to repair and modify Kong’s hand.
June–July: Kong Meets New York
Getting the production to New York has been a long and exasperating experience. The Kong to be taken to New York for the climax, Kong’s death scene, is a non-mechanical forty-foot Styrofoam model. Kong is simply required to lie on the shattered cement after his fall. Paramount officials are afraid of the kind of reception the film will get if a model and not the big mechanical Kong is brought to New York. Will they expect to see Kong on top of the Trade Center, straddling the twin towers? If the public really thought about it, how could they expect a six and a half ton, forty-foot monster, automated by a crane, to be lifted to that height, let alone function when it got there? No one ever intended to bring the mechanical ape to New York. A story is sent out to the trade papers that the Port Authority has denied permission to put Kong on the World Trade Center for reasons of public safety. The model of King Kong to be used in New York is taken across country from Hollywood in three semis that carry Kong’s body—in ten pieces.
Night shooting is a drag. An hour is never so long as it is at 3 a.m., when the body is rebelling at being up, being forced to move unnaturally against the basic impulse to stretch out and go to sleep on any available surface.
End of July: The Dog Days of Summer
The mechanical snake Kong will battle isn’t functioning too well; with it’s rubbery skin and plastic jaw, the snake would hardly scare a child, let alone King Kong. It moves on its track with all the vitality of some ancient person creaking along in a wheelchair; the jaw clanks open and shut mechanically, like a puppet’s mouth.
Two months have been spent building the full-size ravine, which the Petrox employees will use to capture Kong, and it remains unfinished and won’t be completed until the end of July. Pressure is on to have the film done by the end of August even if it means dropping some important scenes. The forty-foot Kong is nearly finished. The next assignment: redecorate the Wall to make it look like a New York stadium where the forty-foot Kong will be presented to five thousand spectators.
August 11th :The Big Night
To get the crowds, an ad will be taken out in the local newspapers inviting the public to participate in the filming. Director John Guillermin, now faces the most crucial part of the shooting—the ending. Here he will be using his new star, the forty-foot ape which finally exists in his own special kind of grandeur. He is more than a technical achievement. He has a face and body that move and give him character. His animation gives him life. His size and magnificence stun visitors when they see him for the first time. Kong is wearing a ridiculous crown on his forehead for these final scenes, but there is Kong, eyes rolling, fingers and toes moving. An audible gasp of appreciation is heard from the crowd, then a spontaneous cheer. He works! The Big Apple has been faithfully re-created on Lot 2 at MGM. Naturally, all the “New Yorkers” in the scene are from Los Angeles. When it is time to shoot the first scene, the crowd is estimated at two thousand. Bullhorn in hand, Jack Grossberg stands under the camera crane and bellows instructions to the crowd. He explains the scene, telling them that on the director’s cue they are to rush toward Kong and the girl but stop just in front of her. The clap-stick is snapped. The red light comes on. The people pour through the barricades like water tumbling over Niagara Falls. Without even looking at her, people run past Jessica, reach Kong and begin to pull his hair out for souvenirs. The eager souvenir hunters make off with big patches of hair and a fingertip. On the second night of filming serious trouble is stirring. The crowd has swelled to many thousands. The problem is not what the crowd has done but what it has the potential of doing; breaking windows, stealing equipment, tearing Kong apart, going on a rampage. When a person becomes part of a crowd, he surrenders something of himself. Port Authority officials demand that filming be stopped. When Kong is uncovered for the third night of filming, an eye and a tooth are missing. He now resembles a drunk, one-eyed, hairy fighter with denture problems. A light bulb is painted and inserted into his eye socket and a paper tooth is cut and put into the hole in his bridgework for the final scenes.
Somehow—with the help of dreams and hard work—somehow, motion pictures do come into being. The next day the crew begin packing for home. Kong leaves “New York” its reigning champ. He has created headlines in the Big Apple and across America. On December 17, when the film opens simultaneously in fifteen hundred theaters, the combined efforts and talents of cast and crew will finally be projected on the screen. It has been a long, fascinating haul for hundreds of people—producer, director, actors, writer, special-effects men, cameramen, stunt people, grips, and editors—who put King Kong together.
A Bit of Trivia and a Little Truth
by Leta Learn
“The surface seems viscous, it sure as hell could be oil.” Geologist Roy Bagley
A Bit of Trivia:
Charles Grodin’s death scene nearly became his real-life death scene. As Kong begins to stomp down on him, Kong’s leg malfunctions and Grodin narrowly escapes being crushed.
Peter Cullen was uncredited as the vocals of Kong. Mr. Cullen strained his throat so badly that he coughed up blood in the recording studio. If his name is unfamiliar, you might recognize him as the voice of Optimus Prime in the movie Transformers.
A Little Truth:
I’ve always loved monster movies. Watching my favorite actor playing geologist Roy Bagley in King Kong was—in a word—delightful! In my opinion, King Kong is a movie that has always been underrated. Though the movie became a huge hit with audiences, most critics (with the exception of Pauline Kael, of The New Yorker ) were brutal. Before the film started, the company told Dino De Laurentiis it would take up to three years to build the perfect mechanical Kong, but De Laurentiis wanted the job done in less than a year. Distributors would pay an estimated twenty-five million dollars in advance for a Christmas booking. Companies wanted to tie in their products with the marketing of King Kong. The Beam Liquor Company ran an ad in 611 newspapers and ran the ad eighteen hundred times. After all the “hype” about the 40-foot mechanical monster, the million-dollar Kong did work; he just didn’t work very well. The automated version is seen only for about 15 seconds toward the end of the film.
What happened to that 40-foot King Kong?
From an online RFP message board, GuntahKela posted: “This functioning prop toured many countries as part of a circus act. He was part of a 20-minute live show which retold the King Kong story. I got to see it back in the 80s.”
We don’t often think about what goes on during the making of a movie because we see the finished product. I still enjoy the film and not once in the nearly 41 years since its release, have I ever read or heard René complain about the dangers, disasters, and hardships he and the rest of the cast and crew endured while filming King Kong.