"DID I HAVE PEAS ON MY FORK?"

Angela Allen talks to Alan Eyles about her long career as a Script Supervisor

 

With Sean Connery and Michael Caine on location in Morocco in 1975 for 'The Man Who Would Be King' (Photograph by Eve Arnold)


There is more to being a continuity girl (as Script Supervisors used to be called) than your editor thought, as he learned from a recent visit to the west London home of the doyenne of the profession, Angela Allen. "The continuity girl has to interact with all the departments - the set and the office," says Angela. "You can't leave the set to go to the bathroom.  You have to be there all the time beside the Director watching every shot and watching every move the actors make, on which word the camera moves, when it stops, which side of camera they are looking.  You have to make sure, when they go in to do the close up, that the eye lines are right so that the people look as though they're speaking to each other. If you see in the line-up - the rehearsals - that they are not doing this, you have to leap up immediately and say, 'No, no, no, you're crossing the line, otherwise you're going to have to cover everybody left and right.' You have to say, 'No, you cannot shoot over his left shoulder - you've got to be over his right shoulder.'

"You're there to stop them making mistakes, which are very expensive if you've got to do retakes - and you can't say, 'Can I go back and look at my notebook for half an hour?' You've got to answer on the spot. Occasionally the Director will say, 'I know what you've told me is right but I want to do this...' That's fine if he's aware of it,  but today when somebody's on the wrong side of camera, the young director will say, 'I don't care', 'It doesn't matter','Nobody will notice.' If the wardrobe department brings the actors down and you think the costume is wrong, you have to jump up and say so: 'No, no, no, he's not wearing the blue suit in this scene.'"

There's the matter of reminding actors how to match a location exterior shot with an interior in the studio some weeks later. "You have to remind a person that he (or she) came through a door very quickly or very slowly, and opened the door with the left hand, because the briefcase was in the other hand. You write all this down. In the old days, after every single shot you typed extremely detailed notes on exactly what word the artist rose, which way he turned, if he took the cup with his right hand,on which word he passed it to his left hand, when he shook hands, any word changes he made in the script..."

I had always imagined that matching shots in which actors are smoking was particularly difficult. "No, cigarettes are comparatively easy.You say to the prop man - 'Give him a new one before they start the take again, so he can smoke it down to where it'd got to.'"It's the same thing with candles -

"Change the candles, they've burnt too low." No, dinner party scenes are the worst - "trying to watch everybody when they're all eating - an actor saying,'Did I have peas on my fork on this word or did I have potatoes?'"

A member of the camera department might ask what filter he had on a shot taken three months ago and what was the distance from the actors because they're doing a reverse shot. "You have to be able to supply the answer immediately. It's a question of learning how to observe."

So how did Angela start learning? She became interested in films after working as a secretary at Denham and deliberately sought an opening in continuity as an area where women could succeed. "My first film as an assistant was 'Night Beat'. Then 'Mine Own Executioner'. On 'Bonnie Prince Charlie', I had started as the assistant but the lady, who trained me on 'Mine Own Executioner', got married so I finished the film.

 

Angela with Katherine Hepburn & Humphrey Bogart on location, while working on 'The African Queen'

"I worked on the second unit of 'The Third Man'. In many ways Carol Reed was my mentor. Carol was also a brilliant technician in addition to all his other talents. He'd been an actor, he so understood actors and today many of the young ones are not very good with actors, they are only interested in the visuals. They can't talk to actors because they've never had the experience."

There is one Director Angela worked with far more often than any other. "I didn't do fourteen films with John  Huston because of my face," she declares. "I was never his girlfriend or his mistress, therefore I must have been good at my job."

For the record, the films were 'The African Queen' (1951), 'Beat the Devil' (1953), 'Moulin Rouge' (1953), Moby Dick (1956), 'Heaven Knows, Mr.Allison' (1957), 'The Roots of Heaven' (1958), 'The Barbarian and the Geisha' (1958), 'The Unforgiven' (1960), 'The Misfits' (1961), 'Freud' (1962), 'Night of the Iguana' (1964), 'Reflections in a Golden Eye' (1967), 'The Man Who Would Be King' (1975) and 'Wise Blood' (1979).

Angela had worked on 'Pandora and the Flying Dutchman' for Romulus Films, which was then involved in 'The African Queen' with producer Sam Spiegel. "I was interviewed by Sam Spiegel - not by John, who was already in Africa - and I got assigned to John that way. Sam thought because I was the youngest in the industry I'd be tough enough to withstand the rigours of the jungle.I did.I was one of the ones who did not go down sick.  John fell out with Spiegel after 'African Queen' about finances but about fifteen years later I heard him say,'I don't like him,but he's the best producer I ever had.'" She recalls that Spiegel would argue with John: "Normally he had a very valid point. But, perhaps he wasn't the most honourable of men."

   


She continues: "John Huston knew what he wanted. He never over shot,he never shot a whole scene in a long wide angle making the actors play four minutes of dialogue - it's one of the most wasteful ways of shooting if you know you're going to cover it from different angles and you never want to go back to a wide shot.

    "I knew his style so that if production managers came and asked him,'What are you shooting?',he'd say, 'I'm not discussing it with you. Go and ask Angie. She knows exactly what I want and the way I'm going to shoot.' So the Production Managers would ask me, 'You will be doing coverage?' or 'How many shots have you got to do, Ange?' And I'd say, 'He's got to do so- and-so and he won't finish before nine.' I never got it wrong.

Working with John Huston on 'Moby Dick'

 

 

"John didn't like second units.  I shot some scenes for him on 'Roots of Heaven' as did Stephen Grimes, his art director, on another film.  We knew we'd get told off about them.  Whatever we did was wrong.  I was in charge of a unit picking up shots of the doubles.  I was not only directing it, in charge of my French camera crew, I even had to double for Eddie Albert because we were in Africa and we couldn't find another white man in the village.  To find one very tall man, I had to drive about a hundred miles to persuade him to come and work for us.  Most Directors hate second unit.  They never think they're any good."

Another Director she worked with on several occasions was John Frankenheimer. "The first one I did with him was 'The Horsemen in Afghanistan' with a mix of French, English and Spanish crew.He was a Francophile.  Many years later, he came to London and invited me out to lunch to offer me 'Holcroft Covenant'. Later I did one in Canada ['Reindeer Games', released here as 'Deception'] and 'Ronin' in France. He could be rough and nasty with some of the boys but to me he was wonderful.

Doubling for Deborah Kerr on 'Heavens Knows, Mr. Allison'

 There have been occasional frustrations - films like 'Genghis Khan' and ' Sahara' on which the pay was slow in coming or not forthcoming at all - but there is hardly anyone that she hasn't enjoyed working with.

"The only actor I really fell out with in my entire career was Burt Reynolds. He was very unpleasant."  The film was 'Rough Cut'.  Angela had worked well with its Director, Don Siegel, on 'The Black Windmill' (1974) but another complication on 'Rough Cut' was that he had brought over his mistress who fancied herself as a writer and dialogue director.  Angela recalls:

Angela with John Wayne and John Huston - 'The Barbarian and the Geisha'
"When the charming and lovely David Niven said to me, 'What's my line?', she said, 'You don't ask her'.   David was absolutely astounded and said, 'I'm sorry, but I've always asked the continuity girl.'   And she said, 'no'.   I couldn't do my job on that because she was trying to do everything and not doing it very well."
And there was the Director of 'Downhill Racer', Michael Ritchie.   "I didn't like him at all.   He was very mean financially - we'd all be having a meal in a restaurant and he'd say, 'Can I join?'   We'd divide the bill and he'd always say, 'No, no, I didn't have vegetables...'    He was not popular."

Some films were less fun than others.   'The Dirty Dozen' was one of the most difficult films I worked on.   The stars were wonderful.   I didn't have to watch Lee Marvin or Robert Ryan.   If they'd picked up their guns or their pack with their right hand, they'd do it again.   But John Cassavetes and young Donald Sutherland and the others:  I used to get them all buttoned in their uniforms and by the time I'd got to the end of the line they'd been playing games down the other end.


Angela observing Huston instructing John Wayne how to bow 'The Barbarian and the Geisha'
"I think it was the most endless film I ever worked on in terms of coverage.   That was the first film in my career when they shot that much film - the coverage on it was ridiculous.    It was two months over schedule and we had night work which was supposed to be three weeks - seven weeks later, we were still there.   We had three cameras on everything, even if it was one word.   The cameras used to be stacked one on top of the other with three different lenses.   The cameraman didn't like it but that's the way we did it.   Ultimately it was very successful.   I've done my little bit on the new 40th anniversary DVD - they got anybody who was still living to go and talk about it.

"Perhaps the most efficient Director in the business is Sidney Lumet.   If a film was scheduled for five weeks he'd do it in four and a half.  He rehearsed and selected every shot before filming began.   He does one take and if it's good he shouts 'Print' on the soundtrack and that's it.   He wouldn't allow actors to argue - the time to argue was in the rehearsal period"    Angela worked with Lumet on 'The Offence' (1973) and 'Murder on the Orient Express' (1974).

Over the years the continuity job has come to be restyled 'Script Supervisor', and Angela could


Under attack from Sean Connery during production of 'The Offence'.
tell me exactly how it happened.   "I had to change it to 'Script Supervisor because the Inland Revenue had decided the film industry should not be on schedule D and 'continuity' or 'continuity girl' - as there weren't any men doing it - to them sounded like 'typist' and 'Script Supervisor' sounded better, so I adopted the title.   We had to submit documents of what the job consisted of and we had a meeting with an Inland Revenue gentleman.   After waiting three months I phoned and he said, 'Oh, how remarkable! I was just writing a letter to you today, so can I tell it to you over the phone?    Well, we've turned you down and you've got to go on PAYE.   But having met you, Miss Allen, I don't think you'll take no for an answer.'   And I said no.    So they had to send all the papers down to Somerset House where the main Inland Revenue was, and we waited.   Again I called up and when I got through they actually admitted they had lost the whole file and then I knew I'd won.   Three weeks later they decided we could stay on schedule D.    And since then we've been officially called Script Supervisors.
The job has changed in other ways.   "Nobody types very detailed notes so that anybody could take over if you were ill.   Somebody could look at my typewritten notes and say an actor stood up on this particular word."   Nowadays they refer to tapes from the video monitors, which Angela remembers being first used on commercials.   She suggested video monitors for two of her films with Franco Zeffirelli - 'Tea With Mussolini' (1999), 'Callas Forever' (2002) - where  they were particularly helpful because a bad hip prevented him moving around very much.

With Maggie Smith on 'Tea With Mussolini'

The way of directing films has changed, particularly when Directors have gone to film schools rather than worked their way up the ranks.   "Today they go to a film school and they expect to be a director immediately and they want to work with their fellow students - the old technique wasn't a bad one whereby if you gave a new Director a chance you'd give him an experienced crew to help him.   That is not the British way of doing anything today.   I have heard the Director say, 'I don't bother about the camera.   The cameraman will do it.'   I say, 'Well, then, it isn't your vision, is it?'"
Just because she's picked up a few honours - an MBE in 1996, a BFI Career in the Industry Award, the Michael Balcon Award at the 2005 BAFTAs (presented by John Huston's daughter, Anjelica) - and serves on the BAFTA Film Awards committee, Angela hasn't become a stranger to film sets.   When I saw her, she was just back from a week on the South Coast, workong on commercials for a mobile phone company.



This article and photographs are reprinted with kind permission of The Veteran, where they were first published in 2006.


With Director Andrew V. McLaglen on 'North Sea Hijack' (1979)