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229 22 A Sea of Mud The story has been told so often that it has entered the Hollywood apocrypha: a Seasoned Director pitches his project to a powerful but very young studio executive. Depending on the telling , the Old Master is variously Fred Zinnemann, John Huston, George Stevens, Frank Capra, or William Wyler. “What other things have you done?” the zygote asks blithely. The Seasoned Director then leans across the desk and says to the executive, in italics, “You first.” By late 1978 Arthur Penn was practicing his italics. The film revolution that he ignited with Bonnie and Clyde had installed a generation of filmmakers who’d leapfrogged over him without looking back, never mind genuflecting. Their tastes had been shaped by movies, TV, and comic books—not by life—and they had precious little interest in what they called “character-driven” stories. Penn wasn’t alone. Paddy Chayefsky—who foretold the dismal future of the mass media in Network (1976)—held to traditional values while warily eyeing the future. He conceived a novel about a scientist who uses a sensory deprivation tank to regress to humankind’s primitive past, then adapted it into a screenplay that offered plenty of potential for special effects. It was not only a science fiction love story (the scientist is rescued from his genetic netherworld by the love of a Good Woman), it was a paean to the folly of using technology to define humanity. Altered States became a best seller. The movie became a nightmare. 230 Arthur Penn Chayefsky asked Penn to direct it. For the cast, Penn hired a newcomer from the Juilliard Drama School by the name of William Hurt, then added Blair Brown as his wife and Bob Balaban as his laboratory antagonist. The innovative makeup effects would be created by Dick Smith and would turn Hurt’s character into a Cro-Magnon man (actually dancer Miguel Godreau) as well as what can only be described as a large pink embryonic blob. Chayefsky told interviewer John Brady that he came up with the idea—a shameless twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde— during a bull session with writer Herb Gardner and directorchoreographer Bob Fosse at the Russian Tea Room.1 Penn and Chayefsky hadn’t worked together since First Person in 1953, and they looked forward to the reunion. “And then I found out that he was the producer,” says Penn. “He came in one day and said, ‘I’ve seen the first set and it’s no good, it’s wrong.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I saw this big set, and it’s wrong. I think of this as a small scene.’ I said, ‘Yeah: we’re in the middle with all this equipment and we’re gonna shoot in various areas of the set, Paddy.’ It was a test of me and him, and we had known each other all this time from the Soldiers’ Shows in Paris. Finally I said, ‘Paddy, it’s not gonna work.’” There were also script problems that had surfaced during the six-month preproduction period, something Chayefsky readily admitted. “When I sat down to do the screenplay, all the holes came out. You can get away with a lot in prose that you can’t get away with at all in drama. I tried to follow the book, and it didn’t work.”2 By this time the film’s advocate at Columbia, Daniel Melnick , had bolted, leaving the agreeable Frank Price in charge. It was then that both Penn and Price discovered that Melnick had given final cut to Chayefsky and his producing partner, Howard Gottfried, not to Penn or even the studio. The director realized it was madness to continue. He was paid out, and Ken Russell took over. Not long afterward, Columbia dropped the project and Warner Bros. picked it up, by which time the budget had bloated to 15 million 1978 dollars. Chayefsky didn’t like the Ken A Sea of Mud 231 Russell experience, either. “They were sending him dailies,” Penn says, “and he’d taken his name off by this point.”3 The two men bumped into each other on Manhattan’s West Side. “He’d say, ‘Arthur, Arthur, you don’t know what they’re doin’ to our piktcha .’ He disavowed Ken Russell’s stuff totally.” Altered States was released in 1980 with an ear-shattering gimmick called “Mega Sound” that goosed subwoofer levels to the point of...


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