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Ransom Center's "Making Movies" takes visitors behind the camera

Exhibit draws on extensive archives to illustrate complex process.

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
The exhibit includes parts of Robert De Niro's costumes from 'Taxi Driver,' right, and 'Frankenstein.' ransom center

If there is one sacred cow that's going to be tipped as you go through the Ransom Center's "Making Movies" exhibit, it's the auteur theory, the notion that the director is the "author" of a movie.

Before any film student or scholar sits down to write a strongly worded e-mail, know that this is not to denigrate the director's crucial role in tying the movie together, in being the (more or less) final word on what happens behind the camera and what the public sees on the big screen.

But "Making Movies" reminds you that there are plenty of threads to tie, that there are often disparate and competing visions in a movie, dozens and sometimes hundreds of voices that come together and fall away during the creation of a motion picture. The director suddenly seems less an author than a conductor, coaxing the various elements together to create the best harmonies he or she can.

And walking around the exhibit with Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson is a treat, like having Tom Colicchio talk you through an episode of "Top Chef" or watching the Austin Symphony Orchestra with Peter Bay.

Wilson put together this exhibit out of the Ransom Center's extensive film holdings, including archives from actor Robert De Niro, screenwriter Paul Schrader and a ton of material from legendary producer David O. Selznick.

"We wanted to say something about the filmmaking process, show off all the creative people involved and put the materials in the context of specific films," Wilson says. Between 400 and 700 objects are in the exhibit, depending on how you count (a page of script versus a whole scene on display, for example). Either way, it's easily the biggest display the center has mounted.

We start at the beginning, as many movies do, with the producer, an area dominated, as one might expect, by memos and photographs.

There's a photo of MGM executives Harry Rapf, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. There's a chart looking at various financing options for "Gone With the Wind" (a production Wilson calls one of the best-documented movies ever made). And there's a copy of the filmmaker's bête noire, the 1934 version of the production code. It's fascinating to see what's on there and what is not. "The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin" (good luck with that, guys). Offensive terms such as "yid" are on there, as is "nerts." (No, really.)

Some words were obviously so beyond the pale they are simply absent. "Damn is not on there," Wilson says, gesturing to a memo from Selznick to the Hays Office (the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America censorship office) requesting a variance for the "Frankly, my dear \u2026" line.

Over on the writer wall, we learn that writers were typecast right along with actors. A letter of suggested writers for "Gone With the Wind" contains some rather \u2026 direct assessments.

Sinclair Lewis might be "either a little too political minded or a little too gin minded" for this gig. Edwin Justice Mayer, writer of "To Be or Not to Be," is called "the world's laziest man." These days, agents might talk about this sort of thing over the phone, lest they leave a paper trail that could be subpoenaed.

Wilson points to various outlines that screenwriters construct, and, boy howdy, do they reveal a lot. Ernest Lehman's outline for "West Side Story" is on index cards, suggesting the big-picture vibe of a golden age studio movie. Paul Schrader's outline for "Raging Bull" is written in a cramped, tiny hand, the sort you might see on a letter sent to a newspaper before the author starts randomly shooting people in a McDonald's. David Mamet's outline for "Heist" is a timeline, with events carefully placed for maximum narrative punch.

"We have another outline for 'Gone With the Wind' that is 81/2-by-11 pages taped together end to end," Wilson says. "It's about 14 feet long with 75-year-old Scotch tape on it. Couldn't really figure out how to display that one."

Over on the actor wall, memos and notebooks let you know how much influence certain actors have over their parts. Jack Nicholson suggested that Nietzsche be worked into the character of the Joker in "Batman." Notes are scrawled all over De Niro's copy of the "Taxi Driver" screenplay. Tom Cruise was heavily involved in shaping his character in "Top Gun." (And you have to love the "intensity chart" that "Top Gun" screenwriter Warren Skaaren used to plot action beats in that movie. It's easy to imagine it as exhibit A in the hypothetical trial of the American action movie.)

"There's a terrific letter from Christopher Plummer to (director) Robert Wise about his role in 'The Sound of Music,'\u2009" Wilson says. "Very well-written. He hated the song 'Edelweiss.'\u2009"

Plummer calls it "schmaltzy and trite, surely all the things we hope to avoid."

Wilson: "Wise wrote him a very nice letter back that basically says 'No, no, no, no and no.'\u2009"

When we get to concept art and scene conceptions, Wilson practically runs over to the case, pointing at two pages of typewritten text.

"This is the most historically important item in the show," Wilson says. These last two pages of a five-page memo outline the idea of giving William Cameron Menzies — already a well-regarded art director — a new position.

"Selznick wanted to have one guy in charge of designing and supervising everything you could see," Wilson says. With that memo, Selznick essentially invented the job of production designer and made Menzies the first one.

"Within two years, every movie had one," Wilson says. Now THAT is power.

Lest you think the exhibit is only for movie nerds, Wilson directs my attention over to the stuff everyone loves: the special effects and the costumes.

"This has been a big hit with the high school kids," Wilson says, pointing to the model of De Niro's head from the Kenneth Branagh version of "Frankenstein." He points to the monster's shoes . "The costume design students got a kick out of how they just built up De Niro's height by using Rollerblades." Sure enough, the boot is built around the blade. It's much cooler than anything in "Avatar."

Wilson's favorite objects in the exhibit are gorgeous collages made by a guy named Norman Dawn. "Dawn pretty much invented special effects," Wilson says, working with directors such as Mack Sennett, Erich von Stroheim and even Thomas Edison.

Dawn created big cards that illustrate his special effects, constructed from his own field notebooks, sketches, production photographs, detailed camera records , film clips and so on. It's amazing stuff, and it's a little shocking how most techniques used right up until the CGI era were variations on ideas Dawn pioneered. You could construct a whole exhibit using Dawn's stuff alone, and it's screaming to be collected in a coffee-table art book.

Virtually any of these exhibits could be blown out into their own gallery. The Center's holdings are vast, from the sheet music for scores to costumes from "Casino" to Travis Bickle's military jacket and Western shirt to a notebook of storyboard sketches for "Beetlejuice" (Tim Burton's a great cartoonist) to photos of Texas movie theaters (including a nickelodeon called the Casino theater owned by Skinny Pryor, Cactus Pryor's father).

In fact, almost all of this stuff, this detritus that illustrates the time and energy that goes into making movies, is cooler than anything in "Avatar." But with blockbusters more and more dependent on CGI, it makes you wonder what one could display from the movie business in five, 10 or 20 years. Script pages? Memos? Sure. A hard drive? That's no fun.

But you can be sure the Ransom Center will have it.

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$1 million gift will fund preservation, archiving

In April, the Ransom Center received a $1 million gift (payable over five years at $200,000 a year) from the Booth Heritage Foundation to support a five-year initiative to enhance the center's conservation and preservation programs for physical materials and to transform the center's digital preservation program. Suzanne Deal Booth, an art historian and art conservator on the center's advisory council, and her husband, David G. Booth, founder and CEO of Dimensional Fund Advisors, started the foundation in 1989 to aid art and heritage preservation efforts.

‘This is a very important gift,' Ransom Center executive associate director Mary Beth Bigger said Wednesday. ‘We want our staff to be able to deal with physical and digital archives equally, as future archives will be both. How to catalog them, how to preserve them, how to provide public access to them.'

For example, photographers don't use much film anymore; their photos are on hard drives and they might print only a few of the hundreds they shoot. Drafts of manuscripts might exist only in word processing programs. This fund also will allow the Ransom Center to create an all-encompassing digital management system to store and manage such archives.

Two jobs funded by the gift have been posted internationally: associate conservator of photographs and digital preservation coordinator. Bigger says the jobs will stay open for a ‘few months,' but did not put a firm date on when the application process would close.

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When: Through Aug. 1. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, with extended hours until 7 p.m. Thursdays. Noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Mondays.

Where: The Ransom Center Galleries, 300 E. 21st St.

Cost: Free.

‘Making Movies Film Series': Screenings of six movies. The free films will be screened in the Ransom Center's Charles Nelson Prothro Theater, which has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first patron, with doors opening 30 minutes in advance. The movies screen at 7 p.m. Thursdays from June 10 to July 22. Titles include ‘Duel in the Sun,' ‘Black Narcissus,' ‘‘North by Northwest,' ‘Detour,' ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' and ‘Casino.'

Information and schedule: 471-8944; www.hrc.utexas.edu.

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926