How Do You Solve A Problem Atop 'Maria's Mountain'?
by Greg May
Julie Andrews Between 'Twirls'
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Academy Award-winning director ROBERT WISE in 1993 saw him sharing the following memories with me of on-location filming and the challenges he faced including rain and a disgruntled farmer . . .
The cast and crew flew to Salzburg in April 1964 for location filming. Associate producer SAUL CHAPLIN and choreographer MARC BREAUX had already 'scouted out' locations in the historic city for filming of the musical numbers. You can visit these locations right here on this website.
Upon arrival, cast and crew discovered Salzburg has the seventh highest rainfall anywhere in the world for that time of year. Originally, they were to spend four weeks in Salzburg but the incessant rainfall delayed production causing those four weeks to turn into eight weeks and making production costs go way over the original budget.
"Hollywood was on the phone every day asking 'When are you coming back?' This is costing us money!" Robert Wise recalled.
Twentieth Century Fox Studios had good reason to worry about money. Their 1960 epic 'Cleopatra' starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton saw them spending $20 million - the most money ever spent for a film at that time - with it being a box-office bomb. They had high hopes of recouping their loss by starring Marilyn Monroe in a picture, but the star died before it was completed.
In the stage production, 'The Sound of Music' begins with the nuns processional followed by the scene with Maria singing the title song atop her favorite mountain. For the screen adaptation, producer/director Robert Wise felt it would be more effective having us meet Maria as she sings the title song first. And talk about a grand entrance!
While scouting the area surrounding Salzburg in the helicopter for aerial shots, Mr. Wise found a mountaintop meadow at Melweg, Germany. Located just across the border from Salzburg, it was nicknamed 'Maria's Mountain'.
The meadow was part of a farm and had tall, swaying grass in which Mr. Wise thought would make 'a lovely on-screen visual' since he knew the blades of the helicopter would cause the grass to part, bow and sway as Julie Andrews twirled around with her skirt billowing. The company paid the farmer - who owned the land - handsomely to use his property while filming.
However, the day they shot that famous opening scene they were in for a surprise. Due to rain delays in production the farmer had to keep his cows in the barn for longer than originally planned. Since he couldn't allow them to graze due to filming in order to feed them he cut the grass!
Robert Wise explained in detail the filming of the helicopter shot where we first meet Maria singing "the hills are alive . . ." He climbed a tree and had a walky-talky in one hand to talk to the helicopter pilot and cameraman and a bullhorn in the other to shout "Go Julie!" so she would begin walking over the top of the hill.
Timing was crucial in capturing this moment on film.
Now the scene with
Julie Andrews singing the title song had already been filmed. The 70mm camera was placed on a track and pushed as she walked among the trees. But just before she began 'singing' (this movie is an excellent example of near-perfect lip sync) Mr. Wise instructed her to make a move where she flung out her arms and whirled around. The day of filming that move from the helicopter Robert Wise instructed her not to do it "until you see the whites of the pilots' eyes".
When the two pieces of film were edited together it looks like one continous shot . . . now that's a director!
Julie Andrews is quoted as saying the filming of this scene 'was not one of my favorite things'. Each time the helicopter would circle around to go back for another shot the draft from the jet engine would blow her down! At first it was funny as she brushed the newly-cut grass from her hair but after several 'takes' it began to get on her nerves. After nearly a dozen 'takes' and being blown down by the 'copter our Maria finally said "Enough!"
Star and director hopped into the helicopter with Director of Photography TED McCORD and were flown to Unterberg where 'Maria' changed her costume and joined her movie 'family' to shoot the films' finale as the Trapp's escaped over the mountains.
So the beginning and ending of 'The Sound of Music' were filmed on the same day to maximize use of the helicopter and pilot.
About that pilot . . .
Robert Wise said he literally 'scared the strudel out of us' as he flew him and Ted McCord around Salzburg for filming of the aerial shots. Once, when pointing to a lake for the cameraman to photograph, the pilot made the 'copter 'divebomb downwards like a kamakazi!"
And now, about that farmer who owned 'Maria's Mountain' . . .
He had had enough of Hollywood and wanted them off his property. Do you remember the scene during the title song when Maria is tossing the pebbles into the brook as she sings " . . . to laugh like a brook when it trips and falls . . ."? That 'brook' was dug out and lined with plastic to hold water from the incessant rainfall.
One day the farmer took his pitchfork and poked holes in the liner causing the brook to go dry! That meant the crew had to re-line the brook and wait for the next downpour to fill it back up!
Although that scene is on the screen for only fifteen or twenty seconds it caused Robert Wise 'the biggest headache' of all the film's production challenges.
So what did the cast and crew do to past the time due to the rain delays? If they weren't sitting on mountaintops under umbrellas they were enjoying some musical revelry in the hotel that housed them during their eight week stay in Salzburg. And you couldn't have chosen a more talented bunch of revelers!
And you couldn't have chosen a more talented bunch of revelers!