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THE LATHE OF HEAVEN: Making the Film

Director Fred Barzyk on adapting LeGuin's novel for PBS

By Frederick C. Szebin     July 17, 2000

For many years the crowning achievement in sci-fi literature/cinematic adaptation was Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film showed that literature, science fiction concepts and motion picture art could co-exist and even strengthen one another. Usually what we get more closely resembles Jack Smight's tragic film adaptation of Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, a watered-down milksop of a vision that bears little or no resemblance to the author's original concept.

On Jan. 9, 1980, public television audiences got a pleasant surprise in the form of a two-hour drama titled The Lathe of Heaven, based on Ursula K. LeGuin's highly acclaimed 1971 novel about George Orr, a dreamer whose dreams affect the very fabric of reality. His 'effective dreaming' is driving him a little insane, so he takes an overdose to stop dreaming, which only winds him up at the office of Onerologist Dr. Haber. The dream specialist is a little unsure of George's own grasp on reality until he experiences one of his patient's effective dreams. At that point, Haber decides to use his home-made dream enhancer to better first himself and then the rest of the world as he sees fit. The problem is, George's subconscious has its own evaluations of what Haber suggests. George dreams, and the world becomes even worse with an alien invading horde attacking what's left of a struggling humanity in this indeterminate future. George goes for help to lawyer Heather Lelache, but her life, too, becomes embroiled in George's and Haber's ever-changing reality even as she and George fall in love.

Bringing LeGuin's Taoist philosophy and world-changing suspense to life was a passion for the late David Loxton, who had a plan to bring a series of what he called 'speculative fictions' to PBS, the launching pad for that proposed series being The Lathe of Heaven. In partnership with the literary-minded television producer was director Fred Barzyk, credited as Lathe's co-director with Loxton, who served more as the project's producer while Barzyk took on the actual directorial chores.

Barzyk attended Boston University on a scholarship and started working with WGBH Channel 2 in 1958, when public TV was still called 'educational television.' 'My background also includes having run the WGBH New Television Workshop,' adds Barzyk. 'In some areas I've been called the Grandfather of Video Art. [Laughs] I explored both the artistic and abstract media of television, combined with my interest in drama.

'When I became a director at WGBH,' continues Barzyk, 'I did a very avant guard show called What's Happening Mr. Silver. It was a series that ran for a year. The guy who was on the show, David Silver, was an Englishman teaching English at Tufts University in Boston. His friend, David Loxton, was working at Channel 13 in New York. Loxton and I became very close friends and working partners. We became partners when I started running the WGBH New Television Workshop, which was letting artists fool around with TV. The funders, the Rockefeller Foundation, wanted to open one up in New York, and they felt that WNET, the public television station, would be the perfect place.

'So I suggested to them that Loxton would be the perfect person to run it. There was a real simpatico between the different projects, and that's how Lathe kind of developed. We've done a lot of shows for HBO, etc., the Lily Tomlin special for NBC, and it was David's interest in what he called speculative fiction (because 'science fiction' had a bad connotation to funders) that really instituted the creation of The Lathe of Heaven. He raised the money, he put the project together, convinced Ursula to let him do it and was the executive producer of the project.'

Before Lathe came into their lives, in 1972, Loxton and Barzyk brought Kurt Vonnegut's peculiar view of reality to PBS in the form of Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus-5. It was a surrealist adventure of Stony Stevenson (the late William Hickey), the first poet shot into space. Stony was shot right into the center of a time warp, or chronosynclastic infundibulum, where his reality shatters about him and he winds up in different places at different times, interacting with various Vonnegut characters as comic masterminds Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott broadcast it.

That experience with the NET Playhouse led to other productions until Loxton's plans for The Lathe of Heaven came into being. But before any real concentration on the project could begin, they had to convince the author, LeGuin, who would ultimately be credited as 'Creative Consultant,' to let them.

'I don't think she had a problem with it being done,' says Barzyk. 'She was interested in finding out how it might all work. I know David spent a lot of time with her. The deal was that we would share with her the adaptation that was being devised. What happened was David and I went out to her place in Portland, Ore., and talked in general about her hopes and desires, and where she would like to take the drama, what she thought was important. We got kind of an overview, and we also had a chance to see the rain that constantly falls on her hometown up there, getting some kind of sense of the lay of the land.

'She pretty well dictated to us in that first visit where she would like it to go,' continues Barzyk. 'Roger Swaybill synthesized Ursula's big script into a more manageable script. Then it was our job, because we had a limited budget, to figure out how to take what were some big ideas and put them into a more condensed, less-expensive process which had a tendency once in a while to change the scripts. And that's why Diane English (later of CBS's popular comedy Murphy Brown) was brought in to help with that adaptation.'

LeGuin was consulted continuously on first Swaybill's script, and then English's work (which involved Barzyk, English and Loxton locking themselves up in Barzyk's NY hotel room for 12 writing sessions over a period of six weeks), making her comments and being asked about any changes to dialogue, story or novel orientation.

'We then tried to take a very expensive adaptation and live within the budget,' says Barzyk. 'And that's why I was brought in at that particular moment to say, 'God, we only have X amount of days, how can we get that done. Well, we can do this and this and this.' So we had to keep paring back, and it became clearer and clearer that it was going to be a film of impressions and ideas, instead of the big effects.'

The budget for this grandiose project was set around $800,000 in 1979 money. That meant that some of LeGuin's more visual images, such as the melting of Portland, would have to go by the wayside in favor of a more impressionistic approach. 'It became more a science fiction drama of the mind instead of visual effects,' remembers the director. 'It was a film of ideas. I tried to make it more like opera than an action film. In other words, there were grand set pieces that took place, especially when everyone turned gray. It was just a way of establishing weight where we didn't have the special effects! [Laughs] So, a lot of things were implied and not necessarily done.'

That didn't mean that The Lathe of Heaven was to go on without its spectacular visuals. When Haber uses his dream machinepowered by George's captured effective dreaming powershe creates a vortex of light in which he is the center, recreating all things. This light was created with a laser machine, a little smoke and some water droplets for refraction. Even PBS could afford that. And Barzyk's penchant to direct in single takes, rather than cover action with multiple angles or numerous takes of a single scene, kept the production rolling

'Shooting in one take is kind of my style,' admits Barzyk. 'There were no rehearsals. It was on a very tight shooting schedule, mostly in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, which at that time gave us the most outrageous buildings we could find, which kind of indicated the future growth. We were in Texas for six weeks, two of which were pre-production. That gave us a four week shoot, with a couple days of pick-ups in San Francisco. Because we were working on an extremely tight schedule, I was really down to the point where I would have to get it in one or two takes. Also, to be honest with you, the actors were also interested in getting done in one or two takes. It was a process by which we were trying to accomplish so much that it was better to get the 'overall,' instead of working for 'moment to moment.'

'For the end of the show, when everything is being destroyed and George is running to stop Haber, we found a laser machine,' he continues. 'All of that was done without any rehearsal. We simply said, 'Let's go fool around,' which probably also came out of the video art concepts we had been dealing with. [The company that rented the laser] told us smoke and laser beams were good, and also if you sprayed water into it that it would pick up highlights. So we just kind of fooled around. We shot for about an hour, and that's where all that stuff came from.'

Barzyk admits to some unhappiness with another visual element of the filmthe creation of the turtle alien that at first attacks mankind, then spews Taoist homilies as George tries to readjust himself to a new life. Only one of the giant creatures was built, credited to Richard Tautkus.

'To me the most unsuccessful part of the whole thing wasagain, it comes down to budgetthe realization of the turtle. At that particular moment the science of the mechanisms for making that kind of animal suit was just starting off. We certainly didn't have the money of something like the Star Treks did, so that was a compromise in both of our situations. We tried to cover it up with very dark lighting and lots of smoke. [Laughs]'

Barzyk found the humans infinitely more accessible. The story focuses on a triad, that of troubled dreamer George Orr, his self-important dream analyst Dr. Haber and George's lawyer/lover Heather Lelache.

George was played by Bruce Davison, who has appeared in more than 78 movies since 1969's Last Summer, and remains best remembered as the title character in the 1971 chiller Willard about a put-upon young man and his control over the city's rat population. He's also appeared in the biopic Deadman's Curve, about the famed 1960s pop singers Jan and Dean, the dark comedy Mother, Juggs and Speed, and in a recurring role on Seinfeld. Lately he has become a favorite supporting player for director Bryan Singer, having appeared in the director's Stephen King adaptation of Apt Pupil, and in X-Men as the mutant-hating Senator Kelly.

Kevin Conway (Dr. Haber) spends much time treading the boards of Broadway, as well as appearing in an impressive number of films and television productions, including Slaughterhouse 5, F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley (the later two both starring Sylvester Stallone). He recreated his stage roll in The Elephant Man for the film, and has also appeared in Gettysburg, The Quick and the Dead and Titanic.

Barzyk and Loxton found their Lelache in Margaret Avery, an attractive African-American actress whose career goes back to the late 1940s. By the 1970s she had appeared in Hell Up in Harlem and the Dirty Harry opus Magnum Force, as well as Which Way is Up? with Richard Pryor. After that, she also appeared in the mini-series The Jacksons: An American Dream, and in the features White Man's Burden and Second to Die.

The film was shot on 16mm since the production couldn't afford 35mm, the feature film standard. Boston-based Dick Bartlett was brought on as editor, having worked with Loxton and Barzyk on other projects. Cinematographer Robbie Greenberg, who would later film such diverse fare as Swamp Thing, The Milagro Beanfield War, Free Willy and the recent kiddie hit, Snow Day, was hired from Los Angeles to give the film a 'big' look that would belie its low budget origin. Dennis Maitland, who would later handle sound chores on several Robert DeNiro and Wood Allen films, was brought in to take care of the film's soundtrack. 'We spent a good deal of money bringing someone in from New York who had a lot of audio experience,' explains Barzyk, 'because we were concerned about that.'

Barzyk would later go on to direct 1984's Countdown to Looking Glass, which starred Scott Glenn, Michael Murphy and Helen Shaver, which got the Ace Award for Best Drama. He then went onto Secrets with Barbara Feldon and Christian Slater, Jenny's Song starring Ben Vereen and Jessica Walter, A Matter of Principle featuring Loretta Swit and the educational series Connect with English.

Filming The Lathe of Heaven went relatively smoothly in Texas, although at one point the production had to stop thanks to the introduction of some local color. 'We had hired this guy who was supposed to do this major explosion in a park in Fort Worth,' recalls Barzyk. 'It was as if the Earth had split open, and Orr was supposed to be standing to one side as it split. Well, the guys got it all lined up, the cameras all set and then the Fort Worth Police came in and said, 'Hey, you guys are going to have to clear out now. We got a drunk coming down the street with two shot guns, and we've got to get everybody out of here!' [Laughs] So we left and came back when they said it was all right.

'The final place where Haber has his machine was actually the Hyatt in Dallas,' he continues. 'We had to work around all the customers, so we had to shoot at the wee hours of the morning when everybody was asleep and we had to be quiet while we were destroying everything! Also, Haber's major office was the City Hall in Dallas, which had just been built, and we had to work around the Mayor's schedule. It was silly, and yet it was okay. We were all staying at the same hotel, and so there were a lot of meetings in the bar, and people had a good time. But I think at the end of the four weeks everybody was glad to get out of there.'

During that four week production period, the actors not only had to deal with Lone Star State eccentricity, but also a breakneck schedule that was enhanced by Barzyk's single-take style. That was something, the director assures, that wasn't too much of a problem for the professional cast.

'It forced the actors to put their faith in the director,' laughs Barzyk. 'Fortunately most of the time the actors have been mostly receptive to my suggestions. I also think what is really important is that I trust them. If the casting is good, usually their instincts are right on and you get decent performances. Sometimes when things aren't working just right you just keep shooting for a little bit longer, but those usually become fairly rare as you get further and further into the project. A half-hour drama for television is usually shot in five days. An hour-long TV drama is usually shot in 10 days. That's kind of the standard routine. So this was no faster than, let's say, an After School Special. It isn't something that isn't understood by the actors. It is a process that has now grown up as a financially budget-concerned way of production.

'The biggest delay factor was painting everybody gray,' continues Barzyk, talking of when Haber instructs George to dream away racial inequality. 'We would call people in at 4 a.m. and we'd have 25 people to cover gray. Each of them took a long time. We had four or five make up people out of Dallas to do it, and they had to move very quickly. But for me the most difficult thing was when Haber gets George to dream away all of the populationhow could we possibly do that, this kind of grandiose event, which in print you use your imagination or if you have a $100 million budget you create. If you look closely at that scene, it's a group of people sitting around a table who become covered over with cob webs. That image stems from some video artwork that was being done by an artist named Peter Campus, and I borrowed some of the things he was doing.'

When The Lathe of Heaven aired in early 1980 it became the most-watched drama in PBS's history up to that time, and was also shown during pledge drives as that Holy Grail of televisionthe intelligent drama that kept audiences coming back for more. They had even pleased the author...relatively.

'I think she was pleased and probably disappointed,' says Barzyk. 'I mean, if you write something you have a vision in your own head. As Vonnegut said to us, 'I love you guys, but this is your sci-fi fantasy, not mine. Go for it.' [Laughs] I think in some ways she said the same thing. Let's put it this way, I don't think she was embarrassed by what had happened, and I think she was pleased at the critical response of what had come back. Back then it was kind of a big moment for that kind of drama on public television. For some reason it's kind of re-emerged in my life again after having sat pretty quietly for a number of years.'

The Lathe of Heaven sat there, Barzyk believes, because Loxton had been the only person left at WNET in New York who would have bothered championing its return. After his death by cancer, that changed and the film was only remembered fondly by those who saw it two decades before. Another problem was that a snippet of the Beatles song, With A Little Help From My Friends, was a plot point toward the end of the story. Re-releasing the film in any form meant paying some hefty royalties to Apple Records, the Beatles' record company.

This was eventually gotten around, and The Lathe of Heaven, one of television's premiere sci-fi productions, is finally re-airing, and will see video release this year. It's legend has grown, possibly due to just a touch of nostalgia, but also because Loxton's and Barzyk's sci-fi film of ideas is truly one of the more intelligent science fiction treatments in any media, and shines quite nicely in an era of bloated budgets, overwrought CGI and simplistic storylines spewed out for mass consumption. Even though its low budget betrays its attempts at scale, particularly as Haber begins destroying Portland and George and Heather run to stop him, Lathe remains an enthralling and intriguing production. And its a shame that, despite its monumental successin PBS termsthat Loxton never got to realize his vision of four to five such sci-fi dramas a year.

'My guess, and this is only a guess,' says Barzyk carefully, trying to fill in his late friend's professional history, 'is that they (the funders) said that at that particular moment they could actually get more programming hours by going documentary than they could by going drama. So the advent of Front Line and those other kinds of shows came into play. And I think also that there had been a request for different kinds of drama than just speculative fiction, and that's when American Playhouse also came into existence. So I think there were a couple of political streams of thought going on in the system then that made the speculative fiction-only drama a little too narrow for what they hoped to bring to a broader audience.

'We gambled a lot in trying to be impressionistic with the major sci-fi things,' continues Barzyk, 'and I think when it worked it was really quite startling. When it didn't work, it was obvious that we didn't have enough money to make it happen. That's a joy and a disappointment at the same time. And I think, from a television standpoint, usually you're supposed to capture your audience in the first 15 or 30 seconds, otherwise they keep changing channels. If you look at Lathe, the first 2 1/2 minutes is nothing but abstract images and music. That was a big gamble. That, I'm kind of proud of. The Lathe of Heaven must have had a very large young audience, because it seems like this generation that is now into print and stuff are the ones who remember it, which is really very heartening to us. It's terrific.'

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