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Monday, August 06, 2012

Disaster Feature #1 - Earthquake!

Some of the most popular films that have ever been released are disaster films, and we here at the Pop Culture Addict's Guide To Life wanted to take the opportunity to salute some of these films for the the Monday Matinee entries during the whole month of August.

And by we...I mean, me.

Let's face it, disaster movies are always a lot of fun to watch. Many of them employ realistic special effects that can turn New York City into New York Rubble, and I can attest that a lot of the people in the audience of a disaster film are gripped to their seats during the whole film, wondering if their favourite characters will survive the catastrophe, or die under the most bizarre circumstances.

There are some disaster films that are quite good, filled with a gripping plotline intertwined between falling buildings, exploding cars, and deadly diseases wiping out entire groups of people. On the flipside, there are also disaster films that tend to skip over plot and character development to focus on explosions and nothing more.

Today's film discussion is widely considered to be the granddaddy of all modern day disaster films, as it ended up having a lot of firsts associated with it.

The first film up for discussion in what I like to call “Monday Matinee Destruction Month” is 1974's “Earthquake”.

Earthquake” was released on November 15, 1974, and was directed by Mark Robson. Back in the 1970s, disaster movies were big at the box office, and previous disaster films like 1970's Airport and 1972's The Poseidon Adventure had done well when they were screened at movie theaters, and after the success of Airport, Universal Studios began working with Jennings Lang to come up with an innovative new idea that fit within the disaster-suspense genre that was dominating the box office at the time. And the idea for “Earthquake” came to both of them, ironically enough after a real-life earthquake struck the Los Angeles area in February 1971.

Development for the film began in 1972, and that summer, Lang signed on screenwriter Mario Puzo to write the first draft (Puzo, of course being linked to another widely successful film, “The Godfather”) of “Earthquake”. When Puzo delivered his screenplay, it was quite detailed. In fact, some would say that it was too detailed, as Puzo's version of the script would have required a much larger budget for the film (which was set at seven million dollars). Universal was forced to make a difficult decision...either increase the budget, or cut the script down to fit the budget.

As it turned out, it didn't really matter too much, as Puzo was forced to leave the project after his first draft was completed, due to his commitment to the Godfather sequel. The script for “Earthquake” was put on hiatus until Christmas 1972, right around the time “The Poseidon Adventure” was released. After the success of that movie, “Earthquake” was put into pre-production by Universal Studios, and writer George Fox was hired to retool Puzo's first draft. After eleven re-writes, the film was finally ready to being filming by February 1974.

There was another potential problem. Due to the delays caused with the writing of the script, the film found itself competing against a higher-budget disaster film that was being made by Irwin Allen, “The Towering Inferno”.

When it came to casting for the film, dozens of huge named stars were considered for the various roles in the film. Of course, we all know some of the big names that ended up getting cast for the movie. There was Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, and Victoria Principal.

TRIVIA: Walter Matthau also made an appearance in the movie, albeit under a different name.

But what's even more spectacular is the list of names that were also initially considered.

Did you know that both Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were considered for roles in “Earthquake”? They were considered for Heston's role, but both of them ended up signing on to “The Towering Inferno” instead. Other actors and actresses that were considered for other roles within the film included Jon Voight, James Caan, Burt Reynolds, James Brolin, Jessica Walter, Elizabeth Montgomery, Meredith Baxter, Beau Bridges, Alan Alda, Stacy Keach, Kate Jackson, Susan St. James, Ernest Borgnine, James Stewart, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Kay Lenz, Robert Black, Michael J. Pollard, Sharon Gless, Candice Bergen, and believe it or not, Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers!

Of course, a film about an earthquake laying siege to a large city like Los Angeles, California needed to have a lot of special effects, and a lot of destruction. In fact, in order to make the film realistic, the entire Universal Studios backlot was completely demolished to simulate the earthquake. Other methods were used to make the earthquake scenes appear realistic, including miniature models of actual buildings, matte paintings, and full-scale sets. The film also employed several stunt people to perform the many stunts that involved falling and dodging debris. The film used a total of 141 stunt people (a record at that time), and many of the stunt people were paid $500 to fall onto large air bags from a height of 60 feet!

The film also used a new technology known as “Sensurround” for the film's release. By using a series of large speakers and a 1,500 watt amplifier, the process pumped in sub-audible “infra bass” sound waves at 120 decibels, which in turn gave the people in the audience of the movie theater the sensation of an earthquake.

The Sensurround gimmick attracted the crowds to the theaters, and it certainly proved to be a hit...but it didn't all go off without a few hitches. In some theaters, some moviegoers ended up with bleeding noses as a result of Sensurround. In Chicago, Illinois, the Sensurround was turned down for fear that the vibrations would actually cause structural damage. And, in Billings, Montana, a store that happened to be located next to a movie theater actually ended up having several pieces of merchandise broken due to the vibrations caused by the Sensurround technology.

But, I'm sure that you will all agree that everything came together in the end, as “Earthquake” shook up the box office in a big way, figuratively and financially. The film ended up making almost eighty million dollars total.

I suppose that's really all that I have to say about “Earthquake” at this time. I think that it's almost better to end the blog entry off with the “Big One” shown in the film, just so you can see how the special effects, Sensurround technology, and stunt people all came together to make a rather believable film, even for the 1970s!

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