The Making of “The Lathe of Heaven”
By Fred Barzyk
It is still amazing to me how many people of a certain age remember watching this TV movie.
I mean it was 1979 when it aired! It was on PBS, whose ratings were nowhere near the main network’s audience numbers. That’s a long time for a TV movie to stick in someone’s memory bank.
It is very gratifying and wondrous. A tribute to Ursula Le Guin and David Loxton.
Let me begin at the beginning. David Loxton, an ambitious young Englishman was working for Jac Venza at WNET New York. Jac was head of cultural programs and David was one of his main assistants.
I was working at WGBH Boston doing a show called “What’s Happening, Mr Silver?” David Silver, also a young Englishman, was teaching literature at Tufts University in Boston. Silver and I got together to create an experimental show, “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?”
The year? 1968. The summer of The Love Revolution! Hippies! Drugs! Don’t trust anyone over 30! Free Love! Love-ins!
I was asked to produce and direct a series reflecting the Cultural Revolution and David Silver became the on camera host. He was in his early 20’s, English and looked a lot like Mick Jagger. And he was teaching at a University! Perfect for our audience.
The two Davids (Silver and Loxton) knew each other from school in England. David Loxton came to watch one of our productions. He couldn’t believe what we were doing. Sometimes we couldn’t either. I almost got fired … twice.
The show lasted almost a year and tested the very boundaries of television. We were the first to do a double TV broadcast. The show asked the audience to take two TV sets and place them six feet apart, turn one TV to channel 2 and the other to channel 44 (both owned and operated by WGBH). The audience was presented a show that was in stereo, both in picture and sound. The images and sounds were different on each channel. They were responding to each other while the audience tried to relate the happenings on the two screens.
David Loxton and I soon became partners in doing television shows together.
Each of us had different strengths but usually assumed a shared producer/director credit. In practice, David was the producer and I was the director.
We produced “People” for NBC starring Lily Tomlin; “American Pie” for ABC with Joe Namath; “Flashback” hosted by Eric Severeid and “Countdown to Looking Glass” for HBO; “Phantom of the Open Hearth” a drama by Jean Shepherd for PBS; and “Between Time and Timbuktu” a crazy mix of the writings of Kurt Vonnegut for PBS.
I was also instrumental in getting David the directorship of WNET’s TV Lab, an experimental project similar to the WGBH New Television Workshop that I ran for 10 years.
David had a vision for doing sci-fi dramas for PBS. However, the label of “sci-fi” sounded a little too pedestrian for PBS. So David began calling his proposed dramas “speculative fiction.”
He raised enough money to do one drama and he selected the novel “Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula Le Guin.
He traveled to Portland, Oregon and convinced her that he could do a creditable interpretation of her book. She agreed and David went out and cobbled together a budget of $750,000. (To be honest, David and I both used cash from our respective Experimental Labs to defray over-run costs)
A description of The Lathe of Heaven from its DVD release in 2000:
For George Orr, sleep is not a respite. For Dr. William Haber, dreams are tools. For sci-fi fans, the wait is over.
Praised as ‘rare and powerful’ by The New York Times, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is one of the most celebrated science fiction novels ever written. This innovative adaptation-never before released on DVD-brings the towering vision of Le Guin’s masterpiece to life.
George Orr is haunted by dreams that become reality. In a world where pollution has destroyed the ice caps and plagues rage unchecked, a psychiatrist sees Orr’s power as a way for humanity to escape its bleak fate. But as each attempt to direct Orr’s dreaming ends in failure, the doctor’s obsession with playing God grows stronger… a chilling fable of power uncontrolled and uncontrollable.
And so we began.
David was the Executive Producer and we shared the Director credit. David hired a writer, Roger Swaybill, to write the treatment. His work was adequate but it lacked a special vision that we wanted. David, myself and a young writer, Diane English, holed up in a New York office for 4 weeks rewriting the script. (Diane went on to Hollywood and became a star producer, creating a hit TV series “Murphy Brown.” She and her husband helped fund the Broadcast Museum in NYC.)
The most difficult part of the script to realize was when the lead character, George Orr, has an “effective dream” in which he dreams up the plague reducing the world population by millions of people. How the hell do we create such a disaster, and especially before computer magic as we know it today? And with as little cash as possible?
I turned to two influences. First, the British film, Great Expectations. It was the scene of the scorned bride who still sits in her dust filled castle room, now old and wrinkled, left only with her dreams that gave me the emotional foundation. The other was a video artist, Peter Campus, who created a video art piece where he wraps plastic wrap around his face, over and over again.
My vision took all of George Orr’s friends and relatives, sat them at a large banquet table, lit large English style candelabra’s and had the camera truck around the table over and over again. Each time it went around, the people’s heads became covered with dark scrim, until they slowly slumped into the table. George Orr, Dr. Haber and the woman psychologist watched but did not expire.
Cobwebs, dust, and darkened lighting of the scene culminated when George stands and gives an inhuman scream, while a door opens, again and again, the constantly dolling in of the camera revealing a blazing white screen.
The white screen became the sky outside Haber’s lab finding George Orr standing in the window, devastated by what he had just witnessed.
The first order of business was to find the right actors. David and I viewed a number of films that our casting director asked us to watch. We were impressed with Bruce Davidson’s work in “Short Eyes”. He had the vulnerability and soft demeanor, but with a flash of anger and combativeness that was needed for the part of George Orr. We made him and offer and he accepted.
Kevin Conway had appeared in a WGBH production of “Scarlet Letter.” David and I went to see him in a New York stage performance and were impressed. He had a crispness of speech, the breath of deep and grand voice, and was a smaller man who could embody the Napoleon complex of Dr. Haber.
We offered him the role and he accepted.
The role of the psychiatrist went to Margaret Avery. Her bio includes the following:
Avery scored a major success with her role as the sultry and spirited blues singer, Shug Avery, in Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover. Her performance in this screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s prize-winning novel of the same title earned Avery an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
The production was shot in Texas, with a few exterior cutaways in Portland and a scene on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time that we had worked with a Hollywood based Director of Photography, Robbie Greenberg. He brought his people along and they did a professional job. Our audio person was Dennis Maitland, one of the best audio people I have worked with on a film shoot.
An example: during one of the opening scenes, I had George Orr walk through a crowded hallway. I asked that as he passed by groups of people, we could hear their conversations. We set up the camera dolly and tried the move a couple of times. In a very short time, we were ready to shoot. However, I didn’t see Dennis or his boom person setup for the shot. I asked if he heard the various groups as Orr walked past.
“Oh, yes” he said.
“Heard them all”
“How’s that possible with no boom mic?”
“I have a wireless mic on every group.”
I never saw him do it. He never once asked for a rehearsal. He just did these quick and perfect setups, time and time again. It was amazing. Dennis has retired but his son has followed in his footsteps.
The costume person, Laura Crow, created magic working closely with David, especially her design for the “future” costumes the characters wore. Not too far out, and yet somehow special and reflective of a dysfunctional world. And when the world turns “grey” and all characters, black or white, became grey, she outdid herself in look and budget. No small feat.
I want to take this moment to express my great respect to the set designer, John Wright Stevens, and his staff for their ability to work with the smallest budget ever, to create such unbelievable locations and settings.
He helped us find the great locations: Haber’s most expansive lab at the new City Hall in Dallas, Texas (the mayor had not even moved in at the time of our shooting!) and the glass exterior of Haber’s final lab at the Hyatt hotel in Dallas. We used both the inside and interior with the complete cooperation of the hotel management.
John found great locations in Fort Worth: the Tandy Center and its mirrored elevator, the abandoned Oil Company building, and the bombed out exterior of the opening scene. He even convinced city officials to let us set off special effects — fire, coloring the fountain red and bubbling with dry ice, a 30-foot explosion on the base of the memorial site — in one of its prized monument plazas. Explosion, fire, smoke and the city let us do it. Thanks Fort Worth!
Here’s a small back-story: As we were setting up for the big scene which had to happen at night, the local police told us to move out for a while. When asked why, they said a drunken cowboy was walking down the street toward us, shooting as he walked along. We moved out for about a half hour and then the police said the coast was clear. That’s shooting in Texas in more ways than one.
One of the most difficult aspects of the production was trying to create special effects with a limited budget. Since David and I both had been working with video artists in our respective labs, we knew people who could create some effects for little money. Ed Emschwiller, a prolific video artist who also created works for sci-fi magazines helped with several difficult images, including flying saucers.
The most inspired effect was a laser creation as the two leads fight out in the cosmos. David had located a laser company and we descended on them with our two lead actors and no knowledge of how to make this work. The owners of the company showed us what smoke and sprayed water looks like when added to the laser beams. What followed was a total free for all as we improvised actions that we thought might help the movie. It worked way beyond what we had hoped for. A fitting look for a sci-fi movie with a very low budget.
Now comes time for the biggest thanks. The editor, Dick Bartlett, a long time collaborator on my projects, created a marvelous product. The cameraperson hated it because of the way he mixed and matched shots and the DP wanted all of his long and complicated shots. But Dick was right. He spent time in NYC working with David.
The most daring part of the show was the opening 2 minutes, where nothing happens at all — just shots of a peaceful world — until the bomb. That kind of opening would never have made it through a commercial network. That could have happened only on PBS. It made the show special right at the beginning. Today, cable networks would accept this as normal, but those were different times.
Only three times in my professional career did I ever have original music. Lathe was one of them. Michael Small and an orchestra of 20 created a wonderful musical score and he worked for scale because he liked the project. We were very lucky.
Michael Small (May 30, 1939 – November 24, 2003) was an American film score composer best known for his scores to thriller movies such as The Parallax View, Marathon Man, and The Star Chamber. Relatively few of his scores are available on compact disc. Michael Small died at the age of 64.
The TV movie was released on PBS nationwide. Its reviews were good. More importantly, Ursula liked what we did.
The buzz lasted for a while and then died away. That was until a group of sci-fi groupies started pestering WNET to release the show on DVD. The cost of step-up fees to actors, writers, musicians, etc. was considered too costly. But the noise reached new levels as sci-fi writers started writing articles about the lost masterpiece. Against many objections, WNET did finally break out the cash for a DVD release. WNET said they have never had as many requests for a DVD of one of their shows ever. I thank them for their commitment.
People still tell me how important that film was to them when growing up.
Some are real fanatics, able to recall scenes, shots, even dialogue. This has never happened to any other show I have ever created. It is a tribute to all who made this happen, no one more important than David Loxton.
New York Times, 1989
David R. Loxton, a producer of documentaries and other programs for public television, died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday morning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He was 46 years old and lived in Manhattan.
Mr. Loxton joined the production staff of WNET, the major New York public-television affiliate, in 1966. In 1972, he created the Television Lab, which presented the work of independent film makers like Nam June Paik and of the choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has worked with video.
In addition to serving as the director of the Television Lab from 1972 through 1984, Mr. Loxton developed the Nonfiction TV series, which presented such works as ”Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” ”I Remember Harlem” and ”The Times of Harvey Milk.” Mr. Loxton was the executive producer of Nonfiction TV from 1978 through 1983.
Mr. Loxton was the executive producer of programs for the ”Great Performances,” ”NET Playhouse” and ”American Playhouse” series.
He received many honors, including an Academy Award for ”The Times of Harvey Milk” (1985), Emmy Awards for that documentary as well as for ”The Police Tapes” (1977), ”Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” (1979) and ”Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive” (1980), and Du Pont/Columbia Awards for ”Lord of the Universe” (1974), ”The Police Tapes” (1977), ”I Remember Harlem” (1982) and ”Pesticide and Pills” (1982).
In 1985, he won an ACE. award, cable television’s equivalent of an Emmy, for best original drama, for ”Countdown to Looking Glass,” about a United States-Soviet confrontation in the Middle East. He was co-executive producer, with Frederick Barzyk, of the program.
”It’s very hard to put together projects in public television, and he had the resources and drive to put them together and the skill to produce them,” Arnold Labaton, a senior vice president of WNET and director of the station’s production center, said yesterday. ”He also had a great talent for working with others. He did it with immense tact and judgment.”
This article was a great start to the morning! Thanks so much, Fred, for recalling this time so clearly and giving a well-deserved shout-out to David Loxton. I worked for David during this time and remember so well the production — it was one of my first screen credits. I remember Roger, and I especially remember sitting in that office with David and Diane English watching her work her magic. I remember with special fondness the rehearsals in New York, watching you, David, and the actors work, meeting Ursula. I remember the moment when Kevin suggested in rehearsal that his technology advance to the point where he merely needs to touch George (Bruce) and George immediately collapses into sleep. I remember introducing Michael Small’s music to David, as I thought his haunting score to THE PARALLAX VIEW was a good model for the music for LATHE. I remember walking into David’s office one day and being introduced to a man named Scott Rudin — merely a casting agent at the time . . . and finally, I remember repeatedly delivering rushes to Dick Bartlett, who was editing in a room above Studio 54 — then in its prime. The whole experience was one of my great memories of how much fun production could be, and an inspiring time in my early career in television. Here’s to LATHE, CHARLIE SMITH AND THE FRITTER TREE, the Shepherd pieces, COUNTDOWN TO LOOKING GLASS, and all the other projects I had the honor of working with you and David on. Happy, happy memories!
This is a wonderful glimpse of the rampant creativity of the Amazing Fred. What a prodigious output of cutting-edge television. And it’s good to remember David Loxton, who overcame his Britishness to produce groundbreaking television. Fred and David were a great combination. It’s great to have stories like these archived.
Impressive creative and passionate artists from the womb of WGBH. Imagine non commercial broadcasting absent WGBH …and WNET …and others. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was spawned in Boston. PBS was founded by WGBH’s Hartford Gunn — who was the first president of PBS.
Fred, you are a talented artist, leader, organizer, and visionary. You invent where others have not previously journeyed. You are a gift to our generation. I feel lucky and privileged to know you and to have worked with you. Your resume’ — WOW!