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It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's a giant meteor headed straight to earth in the ill-fated 1979 mix of disaster and science fiction, Meteor. Sean Connery heads an all star cast that includes Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Martin Landau and Henry Fonda in this late entry in the disaster film craze of the 1970s. Connery plays an American scientist called in by NASA to help save the world from the imminent collision course of the meteor. The Americans want to use their top secret nuclear weapons to destroy the meteor. However, when it turns out that the American weapons won't be enough, the U.S. government is forced to ask the USSR for help in the midst of sensitive cold war politics. Can the two opposing governments work together for the common good?
The production company behind Meteor, American International Pictures (AIP), had been in the Hollywood game since the 1950s, known mostly for their low-budget beach party movies and horror flicks. By the 1970s, AIP wanted very much to compete with the big studios. With its bigger than usual budget and name stars, there were high hopes all around for Meteor to succeed.
Director Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure , The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ) was hired to direct Meteor after his friend and Poseidon Adventure colleague, production designer William Creber, encouraged him to meet with the producers. "They need a director badly," Creber told Neame, "and I'm designing the sets."
Neame's great expectations for Meteor, however, quickly turned into frustrations. For starters, Neame felt that with five producers, there were too many cooks in the kitchen. More importantly, there was no completed script ready for shooting. The producers asked writer Edmund H. North (The Day the Earth Stood Still ) to develop a story. When no one liked what North concocted, however, it was back to the drawing board.
Stanley Mann (The Collector ) was another writer who worked for three months to complete a new draft of the screenplay. Just as things were looking up for Meteor, however, William Creber walked off the picture over a contractual dispute. Creber had been the one to bring Neame to the project, and Neame saw this loss as a major blow, losing his most formidable ally. "Perhaps it should have given me a hint about what lay ahead," said Neame in his 2003 autobiography Straight from the Horse's Mouth.
Once a workable script was finally ready, Neame set about assembling a stellar cast just as he had done with The Poseidon Adventure. Sean Connery, who was living in Spain at the time, was the first star attached to Meteor in the central role of Dr. Paul Bradley. It would be Connery's first film shot in the United States since The Molly Maguires in 1970.
For Connery's love interest, producers wanted an actress who could speak Russian convincingly, and Natalie Wood fit the bill. As Tatiana, a Russian interpreter brought along by Soviet officials, Wood was required to speak a hefty portion of her dialogue in Russian-no easy feat. Though she was born in America, Wood's parents were Russian immigrants and often spoke Russian around the house. While most people assumed that Wood was already fluent in Russian due to her heritage, she wasn't. She understood some of it, but had never fully learned the Russian language. "She went to Berlitz (Language Institute) and learned Russian, which she really didn't know," said Wood's friend Peggy Griffin in Suzanne Finstad's 2001 book Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood. "People don't give her enough credit for that...She crash-coursed it, which is very hard to do..."
AIP rented space at MGM Studios in Culver City, California for the shoot, including the gigantic swimming pool on stage 30 custom made for the old Esther Williams water spectaculars. Elaborate sets were constructed inside the empty pool for part of the New York City subway system, featured in the film's muddy climax.
"It was not a great, happy, fun set," recalled Ginger Mason, Ronald Neame's assistant at the time. The shoot was plagued with problems from start to finish. "Roofs collapsed, scaffolding buckled, one technician tumbled thirty feet onto a concrete floor and lived to tell the tale," according to Andrew Yule in his 1992 book Sean Connery: From 007 to Hollywood Icon. When the crew flew to the Bavarian Alps to shoot footage for a spectacular avalanche scene, there was no snow when they arrived. The looks-conscious Natalie Wood butted heads with Neame over how much makeup she was wearing. Neame felt she was wearing too much, and sent word to her that she needed to take some of it off for her scenes. "Tell him I'd be happy to wear less makeup," came Wood's reply, "but only if Sean (Connery) will work without his toupee." And that was the end of that.
Henry Fonda did two days of work in what was essentially a cameo role as "The President." He delivered a powerful 2 ½ minute speech to the Washington Press Corps in the film that was so moving that when the scene wrapped, he received a standing ovation from the crew and over 200 extras. Unfortunately, no one would get to see it because it was cut from the theatrical release version of Meteor.
By far the most difficult scene to shoot in Meteor was the climax in which the New York subway floods, trapping the main characters while they try to make their escape. It took eight days to shoot and cost 1.5 million dollars of the total budget. One million pounds of Bentonite, a material described by Andrew Yule as "a jelly-like mud substance normally used by oil drillers," was transported to MGM's stage 30 and pumped through the ducts of Esther William's old swimming pool where it poured down on the actors from above. Originally, the mud was going to be heated in order to make it more comfortable for the actors, who had to be drenched in it for hours at a time. However, when they tried it, the heat from the mud made the cameras fog up, so the plan was scrapped. The stars would stuff their ears with cotton to protect them from the mud, and after each take they would have their eyes washed out. "Those were difficult scenes for everybody," said Karl Malden, "because it was very real...it was heavy mud, it wasn't just water. It was heavy and you had a hard time raising yourself, and if you were under, you had a hard time to get up. And so you had to be careful and protect yourself as much as you could."
Once the film was in post production, everyone held their breath for the special effects to be added, which were supposed to be one of Meteor's biggest strengths. However, much of the special effects footage had technical problems that rendered it unusable. The special effects shots that did work, unfortunately, were often shoddy and cheap looking.
An emergency meeting was held to discuss how to save the film. "I suggested we needed to spend more money to get usable effects material," said Ronald Neame, "Sandy (Howard) didn't agree. The meeting began in a gentlemanly manner, but it wasn't long before it took on another tone. Accusations were hurled back and forth. People in the outer office could hear the yelling. Realizing there was no compromise other than cut around the effects, thus destroying the film, I wanted out and walked away."
What Neame later described as a "cheap effects person" was brought in at the eleventh hour to tweak and hopefully improve some of the special effects, but Neame was not impressed with the results. "Despite my best legal efforts," said Neame later, "my name still appears as director. Meteor cost $16,000,000. The result was a terminal disaster and an unhappy experience for all concerned." The cast and crew did, however, try to keep their senses of humor by wearing t-shirts that said "There is Life After Meteor".
Brutalized by critics and audiences, Meteor crashed and burned, becoming one of the biggest flops of the decade. On a positive note, the film did manage to receive one Academy Award nomination for Best Sound, and the distinguished cast is fun to watch as it tries mightily to give class to what essentially amounts to a B movie.
Producer: Sandy Howard, Gabriel Katzka, Arnold Orgolini, Theodore Parvin, Run Run Shaw
Director: Ronald Neame
Screenplay: Stanley Mann, Edmund H. North
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Film Editing: Carl Kress
Art Direction: David A. Constable
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Cast: Sean Connery (Dr. Paul Bradley), Natalie Wood (Tatiana Nikolaevna Donskaya), Karl Malden (Harry Sherwood), Brian Keith (Dr. Alexei Dubov), Martin Landau (Maj. Gen. Adlon), Trevor Howard (Sir Michael Hughes).
by Andrea Passafiume