CLOSE ON A GRAY-HAIRED MAN.
Mouth open. Chin on chest.
Sound asleep in a worn easy chair.
PULL BACK to reveal…
…a busy FILM CREW hard at work on a practical set, moving cables, lights, and other equipment into place for a new set-up.
A WAG approaches the sleeping figure and lays a hand-written card on his chest: “WILL DIRECT FOR FOOD.”
The FLASH of a Polaroid camera, and we CUT TO…
…THE SLUMBERING FIGURE, awake now, holding the photo, joining the Crew Members assembled around him in laughter.
And that, my friends, is how I remember Billy.
William A. Graham.
Director of a dozen features and over fifty television films, including the first one ever made, he had started in the days of live television.
He had directed screenplays by giants like Rod Serling, Gore Vidal and Ernest Tidyman.
He had worked with Bruce Dern, James Coburn, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, and virtually every other major actor in Hollywood.
He had helmed a handful of classics—features like Where the Lilies Bloom and MOW’s like The Amazing Howard Hughes and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, and he would go on to do The Man Who Captured Eichmann.
At the time I met him, he was sixty-nine years old, had a thirty-nine year old wife, a four-year old daughter.
He rode a motorcycle to the office every day from what he called “the all too aptly named Carbon Canyon” where he had once stood on the roof of his home fighting a wildfire that destroyed every structure in its path…except Billy’s.
And he flew a helicopter, kept a boat on the coast of France, and had once sailed a private yacht around Cape Horn.
He was, in short, one of the most remarkable men I have ever been privileged to call a friend, but what I remember most vividly about him is that moment on the set of Death of a Cheerleader when he was caught napping and had a good laugh at his own expense.
It was the essence of Billy.
What? you ask.
Was he lazy?
Disengaged with his own project?
Too old and too tired for the responsibility of directing?
He had so mastered the craft of filmmaking, had such comprehensive knowledge of the script, such command of every aspect of the shoot that he could relax between set-ups, even nap if there were no immediate demands on his attention.
He was, in short, the calm eye in the middle of the storm that is filmmaking.
Nothing rattled him.
The first day of our shoot was dedicated to a sermon by a priest to his privilege parishioners.
Eugene Roche, the experienced character actor whose blue-collar look had inspired Billy to cast against type, gave a wonderful performance but kept going up on his lines.
And so it was that at the end of the first day, we were already behind schedule.
No problem, Billy said.
He’d make up the lost time in the days that followed by dropping a few of the set-up he’d planned for some of the other scenes.
The second day of the shoot, the Network demanded that we fire Bob Steadman, the cameraman Billy had worked with for years.
Now, I had written the film as a noir piece, and Billy, Steadman and I had agreed to go for a high-contrast look with lots of dark, deep shadows.
In those days, Networks hated that sort of thing. They wanted bright, uniform lighting so the images could easily be seen on television, so Billy had expected trouble and was prepared to deal with it.
Trouble is what he got.
The dailies were so dark they could hardly be seen, and the Network wanted Steadman’s blood.
Billy calmly refused to give it to them.
Completely confident in Steadman’s ability, he simply and calmly said there had to be a problem at the lab.
He kept Bob on the picture, the negative went back to the lab, a new print was struck, and guess what?
The lighting was perfect.
Another crisis averted.
And so it went, day after day, with Billy calmly meeting and resolving problem after problem.
No muss. No fuss.
Billy had the confidence a good director must have—in his case, confidence backed by long experience.
Did he have all the qualities most successful directors seem to share?
Did he, for example, play God on the set?
If he did, he was a New Testament God—more loving father than vengeful tyrant.
Was he ruthlessly manipulative, willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted?
No, at least not in my experience.
But he got what he wanted…with kindness and reassurance.
Was he completely obsessed with his projects?
Yes and no.
He was in love with filmmaking and grateful that he’d been able to make his living at something he loved so much.
I remember at the end of a casting session, he turned to me and said, “Isn’t this fun? Can you believe they pay us to do this?”
He loved it so much that he sometimes made as many as three films in a single year.
Was he confident?
So confident that he could take those little naps between set-ups.
BILLY GRAHAM’S RULES FOR DIRECTING