by Richard Ballentine
THE MOST, a twenty-eight minute black and white documentary on Hugh M. Hefner, Editor and Publisher of Playboy Magazine, has won top awards in the short films categories at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Melbourne, Mannheim and Florence Film Festivals; and the Special Jury Award at the Montreal International Film Festival. It was also selected as “an outstanding film of the year” by the London Film Festival. It was first seen on CBC-TV (“Quest”) and is now in general theatrical release in the U.S.
When Gordon Sheppard and I decided to produce a film documentary on Hugh Hefner and the “Playboy dream”, we set out to accomplish three objectives:
1. We wanted to do a film on an area of modern North American life that would have an immediate interest to many people, that concerned people and involved them.
2. We wanted to make use of the freedom offered by modem equipment and to use techniques that today’s more sophisticated audience would accept and understand.
3. We had to meet a low budget — our own financing. The budget problem was further complicated by the fact that music would play an important part in a film on
Playboy, and copyright and performance clearances are expensive. (Eventually, the music was composed, arranged and conducted for a modest fee by Dudley Moore, one of the Beyond The Fringe cast and a top English jazz pianist, who was a friend of Gordon’s from their student days at Oxford).
The selection of Hugh Hefner as a film subject, and, of course, his agreement to co-operate, met our first requirement. (Our thanks to Valerie Jennings for having suggested the idea of making a film about Hefner and for having done the research for the film.) Hefner exerts a tremendous influence on North America today and this influence shows signs of expanding to other parts of the world. His merchandising of sex and sophistication has obviously fulfilled some need in a large portion of society and it was a need we wanted to probe. By allowing Hefner the role of creator and symbol of this way of life, a role he has created for himself, we felt we would he able to focus the story, give it unity and strength by dealing with a specific human being.
It has been the purpose of all documentaries to capture and interpret, through film, some truth about our surrounding world. The limitations of documentaries have always been that the particular truth is apt to dissolve in the complexity of the technical apparatus and the manipulation required to operate it. The challenge to the documentary maker has been to find a means of reducing this limitation. The means have been varied; from the use of actors in carefully scripted and rehearsed situations purporting to mirror the actual situation, to “news” documentaries in which the camera shows what it can of actuality and the narrator fills in the rest. Most documentaries fall somewhere between these two extremes.
The means that appealed to us was the use of the camera to record actuality, with little or no manipulation of that actuality. This is much the way a news camera records, but we wanted to do it with a far greater selection of material than a news camera is generally able to get. We wanted the camera to record an event, all of an event, not just some of it; to record it from all sides, in close-up and long-shot, see it physically and interpret it psychologically.
At least, those were our aims. Not only did this require that the camera be able to move freely, to film indoors as well as out, to shoot sound as well as picture, but to film unplanned events with same degree of selection and perfection..
The field we knew was television and in television l6mm design has been giving the camera more and more of these flexibilities. Today, with some minor adaptations, the camera is able to go anywhere and see anything with minimum fuss and maximum results.
To provide us with our technical needs, we approached John Foster, CSC. John had come to Toronto from the NFB in Montreal a couple of years before and we had worked with him at CBC. Later, Gordon Sheppard had directed six films for CBC-TV’s “Close-Up” with John on camera and John’s ability to meet every challenge with a new approach or a new technical wrinkle had impressed us very much.
Light cameras were most important, so John rebuilt a Cine-Voice to give us portable sync shooting. We didn’t have time to outfit with Nagra then, so we decided on stripe for speed and simplicity. (While the stripe tended to flake all over the emulsion and the sound quality was only passable after two generations, the stripe did stay in sync!)
We set ourselves a shooting schedule of three days, with a fourth if necessary (it was!). This was partly because Hugh Hefner didn’t want four guys and 200 pounds of equipment to live with him forever, but mostly it was because of budget. Also, most of what we intended to shoot would happen only once; it was non-directable and it was our desire that it should be so. This necessitated a second camera for pick-ups, reverses and second unit work. John Spotton, CSC, took a week off from the NFB and became a major asset with his speed and sure eye.
Sound was handled by Clarke Daprato whose problems were mainly to give us an “A-one” pick-up with no mike in the picture. He did it. We considered radio mikes, but tests in Chicago proved their unreliability when there was no chance to plot and avoid fade-out zones and interference areas. Clarke finally used an ElectroVoice 642 “Gun Mike” which allowed him to get satisfactory pick-up by handholding just out of frame. In one scene the mike not only picked-up Hefner talking on the phone, but the person on the other end as well.
Lighting was a major concern. The most we could hope to use were a few clip-on photofloods. For the silent camera, John Foster devised and built a low-output, “frezzo type” lamp, not bright enough to put people on their guard, but a good fill for close-ups. To compensate for minimal lighting (and 90% of our shooting was interior) we picked up Double X stock and souped it to ASA 400. We felt this would give us the least grain to the fastest exposure. The end result, processed by Pathe-DeLuxe in Toronto was beyond expectations.
In fact, one of the most impressively photographed sequences in the film is following Hefner through Chicago in his Mercedes 1200 SL at two in the morning. It was lit by streetlight only, both outside and inside the moving car.
The original l6mm negative has stood a major scratch removal operation, fine-graining and blowing-up to 35mm negative for theatrical release prints with little noticeable loss of quality.
Our third objective was to do the best film possible on the subject under our rather strict budget restrictions. Other films had been done on Hefner — straight travelogues of the Playboy empire. They were generally unexciting, but their slickness and gloss showed a budget in excess of anything we could hope to spend.
The answer to this was to make most of our content decisions before shooting. Gordon made a couple of trips to Chicago to visit Hefner and to get to know him as a man, rather than an image. In the two weeks before production, Gordon spent almost every day with Hefner. When he wasn’t with Hefner he was planning the film, not as to what was going to happen, but where and how we would be able to film the most pertinent and most interesting events with a minimum expenditure of time and money. Our basis for planning was a long (two-hour) taped interview with Hefner in which Gordon probed Hefner at every possible level.
Much of this taped material ended up in the film since one of our eventual decisions was that Hugh Hefner should narrate his own story and that he should do so without knowledge of the shooting. This way the events that the camera saw would not influence Hefner’s emphasis and would not destroy any of his candidness. The idea here was that the pictures would amplify, or interpret, Hefner’s story of himself throughout the film and that we would develop from there in two directions — back to Hefner alone (on camera) talking directly to us, and ahead to the picture taking over completely to fill in where Hefner left off.
Before shooting began, Gordon had roughed out a progression of scenes that could become more specific as events unfolded. While it was the events that gave the story meaning, it was the form that gave it impact and shape. And it was the rough form that allowed Gordon to know when he had shot enough of any one thing, a knowledge that saved us lots of time and countless dollars.
Editing, too, was designed to be a minimal budget operation. We planned on three weeks editing with Don Ginsberg, on leave from the NFB at that time, and Guy Chevrette as his assistant. In editing we had, of course, no script except the “rough form” outline. The problem was to interpret the story that the rushes told us, digest it and then try to make the selections remain true to the whole.
It was a game of trial and error in many instances, but suffice it to say that while the film changed substantially from the first to the last cut, it held the same form and personality throughout all the changes. Don, Gordon and I finished the final-cut-but-one in four weeks. Since Don’s leave from the Film Board could not be extended, Gordon and I made the final trims and changes in three more weeks of editing.
A print went to England for screening by composer Dudley Moore, and he recorded the score in London a few weeks later.
Because our sync and wild tracks (stripe) were recorded under such adverse conditions, mixing became a nightmare. Eventually we decided that the Nataional Film Board was the only place that had the equipment that could correct our field problems properly.
Now The Most is in 35mm release in the U.S., has had a couple of theatrical showings in Canada and we’re looking for a way to pay our bills with the awards we’ve received.
July – August 1963 (revised by Gordon Sheppard August 2004)