Eric Saarinen started his feature film career at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures as a second unit director of photography, but he quickly moved up the ranks and became a cinematographer on many notable films, including The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Modern Romance (1981), and Lost in America (1985). Japanese science fiction aficionados might recognize Mr. Saarinen as the cinematographer for Tidal Wave (1975), the Americanization of the Japanese disaster film Submersion of Japan (1973). Mr. Saarinen related his memories of the shoot in a 2007 interview with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: How’d you get started at New World?
Eric Saarinen: Well, I like that question, and I can remember it. Julie Corman called me because she was producing something, and I forget the name of it. She was looking for a second unit cameraman. Anyway, I had a film, and she said, “Do you have some film?” I said, “Yes. Do you have 16?” She said, “Well, I don’t have a 16 projector.” I said, “That’s okay. I can bring mine.” So I brought mine, and we put the reel on, and then I said, “Well, do you have a take-up reel?” She said, “No, I don’t have a take-up reel.” I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t have a take-up reel. I don’t know if you know what a take-up reel is, but the film has to come from somewhere, and it goes somewhere else in a projector. So it’s a round thing without film on it, and then you just thread it up, and then you start the projector. Then, at the end of the movie, all the film is on the bottom reel, not the top reel.
So basically I said, “Well, if you don’t have a take-up reel — I realize the irony of the situation — but could I just borrow your waste basket?” She said, “Sure.” So we did that, and I was quietly happy that we were sort of starting from the dark earth, the bottom of a waste basket. Then it was easy to rewind because I just put it on rewind, and then just held it through my fingers because I’ve cut some film and was able to get it back onto the original reel. She saw the film, and I got hired to do a film as a second unit director of photography. The first unit was slow, so she would punish the first unit by giving me stuff that they should be shooting, giving me stuff with the major stars and long dialogue scenes that I had never shot, or night dialogue scenes that I had never shot, things that I had never done, and they had to just sit around and watch. That was her way of punishing them. It certainly helped me. I mean, within a year, I was shooting my first feature as a first unit DP, and then I was shooting Ronnie Howard and some of the better people and some of the better stories and some of the better crews and things like that.
They moved people up really fast. They don’t pay you much, but I was asking around out of film school and saying, “Well, how do you get a job around here?” You sort of think that everybody’s waiting for you to get out of film school so they can immediately give you a feature film and a bunch of money that you can direct. But they don’t. That’s not the real world. The people who are teaching film school are usually people who can’t make it in film. They know mechanically how to do it, so you learn that. You get out of film school, and I think you start at the bottom. That is the bottom, but there’s something to be said for the amount of money he can save by doing it cheaply, by just getting kids right out of school versus by doing a union job, which costs 10 times more, a lot more. Huge magnitude difference. But you learn the tricks. Right now, I still can revert back. Being a director/cameraman in commercials now, if somebody said I had five minutes to get this shot, I’d figure out a way to get it in five minutes. It could be a shot that takes until noon to get, but if we had only five minutes, and we had to get it, I could do it. I learned that there. I learned a lot of great tricks, and I think a lot of actors got started that way, too, and directors as well.
BH: Now were you aware of how or why New World acquired the rights to Submersion of Japan, or Tidal Wave, as it’s known in the U.S.?
ES: No, not at all.
BH: How’d you get involved in that project?
ES: I became known as one of the main go-to guys for New World, and I don’t know if it was during another film that I was working on, but somebody called me and said, “We’re working on this film. It’s a Japanese film, and Roger got it for the U.S. rights.”
It’s about a tidal wave. It’s an international event, so the tidal wave, being that it affects everybody in the world or could affect large amounts of the world like the tsunami, could easily affect the United States. What he did was, he just rented a hotel suite for the weekend, and there was a revolving door of fairly well-known actors that would come in and take different parts of generals or the American interests, which as the tidal wave was approaching, (they would ask), “What can we do?” “How can we help your State Department?” “What does our State Department need?” I’m not sure exactly what the real story line was, but it was just adding one more country to the list of countries that are being affected by a large tidal wave.
BH: Well, the big star in Tidal Wave is Lorne Greene. Do you have any memories of working with him?
ES: Oh, yeah. He was great. They’d come in, they’d be total, absolute pros, and they had all these jokes on the side, so they were fun to be with. I would consider it a privilege to work with the guy. Do you know who else was in it?
BH: Lorne Greene’s the only one offhand who I know.
ES: Well, there were some other guys, too. They were probably given the script, maybe three days before we shot, too. The situations were not all hotel room situations, but you could make it look like a war room, or you could make it look like some kind of embassy. They were all interiors, and they were all kind of small. (laughs) They were meant to look big, but they were literally small, and it was a literally small crew, tiny crew, but a huge camera. I think it was originally shot in Cinemascope or some large anamorphic format.
It was some kind of format which had the lens in front of the camera, which spreads the image. So it goes onto 35, but then it gets spread out when it gets projected again, so it’s larger than regular 35. But it also has much more space to fill compositionally. It was kind of a joke filming these very small sets with the huge camera. That was the first time I had ever worked with one of those big cameras, and I was the operator and director of photography, and all of a sudden I realized you had to shoot everything with a small f-stop because everything was out of focus. You had to have a ton of light, so it was all new for me, but nobody was pushing because Lorne Greene was totally professional, and all the actors were totally professional. Do you know who directed it?
BH: Offhand, I don’t.
ES: I don’t, either, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s sort of “Here are the lines, say ’em.” To me, the whole thing is interesting because it was such a non-event, the shooting. It was just Roger just being brilliant by saying, “Well, maybe I could get U.S. rights, we’ll call it Tidal Wave, you call it whatever it is in Japanese, but there’s a niche market for this.” It didn’t cost him anything.
BH: Do you know how much it cost?
ES: No, but there were probably six guys on the crew, or eight guys on the crew, and they were getting nothing. (laughs) It was just role after role. It was dialogue, so there was sound and editing. It had to be cut later on, and merged and melded into the original film.
BH: Were all the shots filmed in the suite?
ES: I think so. Yeah, I think so. All the shots I did were (about) 20 pages of dialogue in two days, which is a lot of dialogue. It was just dialogue, and it was stuff you’d cut back and forth from, from the Japanese guys somewhere else or to the wave. It’s not necessarily all at one time in the movie, so you don’t get claustrophobic, and you don’t get bored. If you really had 20 pages all in one room, you’d be bored out of your mind. But because it’s cut up into snippets in the film, it’s in no way boring.
BH: Now legend has it that Joe Dante, who of course went on to enjoy a successful career as a director, was actually in the film. Is that true?
ES: Yeah, it probably is true. So since he was in the film, he probably was also directing, or he could have been directing. I don’t know. I don’t remember that he was in that, but at that time, I don’t know if this was before Hollywood Boulevard (1976), but I knew Joe Dante, and I worked with him, and I worked with Allan Arkush. He and Joe Dante directed Hollywood Boulevard. I shot the part that Allan Arkush shot.
BH: Was Roger Corman on the set at all of Tidal Wave?
ES: You know, the way I would know if Roger was there, somebody would come up and whisper in my ear, “Could you tilt the camera down to include the lady’s breasts?”
ES: Then I would hear a door close. My relationship with him on the set was like that. He’d be there, but he wouldn’t make a big fuss. They’d be really quiet, and he’d sneak around and do his thing, but it’s like you’d sense that he was there. You wouldn’t really know that he was there. I think he was shy in a way.
No, he wouldn’t stand up and throw a tirade; he wasn’t that type of person. He was a pretty distinguished guy, actually, for being a nickel-and-dimer.
BH: (laughs) Well, do you have any other stories from the set, whether they include the other actors or crew members or anything like that?
ES: No, the only thing that I can think is that none of us had really done that before, and it was like that when you work with Corman, you get to do things that you’ve never done before, but it was just outrageous that we were just right out of film school, and we were working with Lorne Greene and doing this epic movie-type stuff. It wasn’t really (an) epic movie, but it served a purpose in his marketplace. I got to know Roger a little bit and Julie a little bit on other films and certainly Allan Arkush and Joe Dante and the camera assistants and the grips and my crews, the gaffers, and the sound people and all that. But Tidal Wave was just a two-day junket, and it was a two-day charrette in the sense that you work 18 hours, and you drop, and the next day you get (up again). It might have been three days. I don’t remember; they kind of blended into each other.
BH: Now when the film was released, do you have any recollections of how it was received critically?
ES: No. (laughs)
BH: Do you have any closing comments that you’d like to make?
ES: Oh, I’ll tell you a Roger Corman story if that’s okay.
Death Race 2000 (1975) was, I think, the last one where I did second unit, but second unit got to do a lot of stuff because first unit was either slow or to handle scenes that first unit couldn’t deal with or didn’t have time to deal with. We were just under the radar more. They had a pretty good size crew, but they weren’t under the direct scrutiny of Roger and his other producers. In any case, at one point they said they would like me to shoot the opening credits for Death Race 2000, which was supposed to be in the year 2000 and was supposed to be the opening ceremonies. We had like 50 extras, and then we had a band. They were playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of the ceremonies for this futuristic show about murder and mayhem with cars.
I was going to do just one shot, and what happened was, all the people were on bleachers, and I was across the way with a long lens sort of stacking people up, making sure there were flags coming from people, and their heads were out of the frame at the top, that every single seat was filled. Then at the bottom you’d see the heads of the people that were sitting on the thing below but not get a sense at all that we were just cheating it or that we were faking it (and) get a sense that it was a real crowd.
In the middle of this crowd was the band, which was like a square donut. They all had red tops, and I was separated because I had a long lens. I was across the way from them, so I couldn’t really talk directly to them, but I could talk to somebody who would then go over and talk to somebody else who would talk to somebody on a walkie-talkie. We were shy one walkie-talkie. So somebody had to do some running back and forth. So I asked them just all stand up as they were doing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and they did, but the band didn’t stand up, and it looks stupid because there was this hole in the square donut. You couldn’t really make the band out. They were obviously playing, so you’re supposed to know that they were the band playing. So then I said, “Well, could you have the band stand up?” That was relayed, and then pretty soon word came back that actually they didn’t know that they’d have to be standing up, so it was the second AD’s interpretation that the band would never stand up doing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (By the way, I didn’t think they rented the bottoms of the uniforms.)
So then I thought for a second. I said, “Well, would you have the band stand up anyway, and let’s just see what they look like because maybe the tops would hide the bottoms.” I didn’t know; I was guessing. The word got matriculated over across the way, and they stood up, and lo and behold, they had rented the bottoms of the uniforms. So then I said, “Everybody, sit down, and then you guys stand up, and you guys play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ We’ll do one five-minute shot.” We did it, and it was a happy ending.
But it was a typical Roger Corman thing where he might say, “Why do we need the bottoms of the uniforms?” It’s like the film in the waste basket. The first feature that I shot, they had asked me (for) an equipment list, and there were these high-speed lenses. They cost a little bit more, but I put them on the list anyway. Then the whole crew shows up, and it’s probably a hundred people, everybody in wardrobe and makeup, and (the) equipment shows up with the film.
But the lenses don’t show up because Julie Corman took the lenses off the list in order to save money, but there were no other lenses. So we all had to wait around for four hours while they went and got the lenses. It’s an interesting point of view, from underneath. But from the blue-collar side of this guy trying to save money, it was fun and amusing, and we were all like a friendly group of people that were making film and happy to be making film in exchange for not making money, but having fun nonetheless.