Super Bowl X had been over for weeks, but in Miami the Steelers and Cowboys were still grinding each other into the Polyturf. Banner-waving crowds were screaming in the stands, vendors were hawking hot dogs and the Goodyear blimp was making lazy circles in the sky. “Now ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to do it again,” said the assistant director over the loudspeaker. “The game is on the 20-yard line and the actor playing Roger Staubach is completing a pass. Now, those who were born in January and February, wave your arms when I start saying, ‘Blimp! Blimp! Blimp!’ Look at that top light standard, the blimp is hitting the light standard, it is falling into the crowd, it is crushing people, it’s terrible, the bodies, the horror…. Now remember, we can’t use any piece of film where there’s any laughter or smiling or looking at the camera or waving, because that’s not natural. We’re trying to pretend that this is really happening. Okay? All right, roll the cameras.”
Melding reality and illusion, director John Frankenheimer is shooting a $7.5 million movie called Black Sunday. Based on a best-selling novel, it deals with Arab terrorists who try to kill 80,000 spectators and the President of the United States in the Super Bowl by attaching a giant bomb to the Goodyear blimp. “I want this to be the best suspense picture I’ve ever made, period,” says Frankenheimer, who has turned out such films as The Manchurian Candidate and Grand Prix.
Since there is a massive TV audience intimately familiar with details of the Super Bowl, Frankenheimer had to start with the real thing. Using 10 cameras, scores of walkie-talkies, a horde of technicians and intricate blueprinting, Frankenheimer shot 65,000 feet of film during the actual game last month. The 80,187 fans were generally unaware of it, but actors Robert Shaw and Fritz Weaver, portraying intelligence agents, slipped through the crowd, looking for evidence of a terrorist act they had been warned to expect. They mixed with the two football teams and cheerleaders on the sidelines and climbed into the bleachers, as director Frankenheimer called the shots to cameras on the field, on cranes, in the press box and mounted aboard helicopters.
Near the film’s climax, when Shaw realizes the approaching blimp will crash into the Orange Bowl, he sprints down the field, around the end zone, then vaults a fence. Stadium security men were briefed, but someone forgot to tell two NFL officials. They tried to flag down the puffing Shaw when they saw him duck around a goal post. Despite all the difficulties, Frankenheimer ended up with about 12½ hours of film, which will be edited down to about 40 minutes in the finished movie.
To shoot the heart-pounding final scene last week, Frankenheimer needed a stadium with people in it. Of course, the bowl was empty. Executive producer Bob Rosen lured in local folk on a Sunday with a $5,000 first prize, free color TVs, a trip to Hollywood and a screen test. He even provided them with a stuntman who simulated burning himself to death as entertainment.
On the big day, the cast and crew were joined on the field by 42 members of the Miami Dolphins doubling as Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. Frankenheimer and producer Bob Evans stood glumly under an umbrella on the 50-yard line. It was raining so hard that the crowd had been driven to shelter underneath the stands. To restage the scene would cost about $750,000. “I could cut my wrists,” mumbled Frankenheimer.
Then, suddenly, the clouds parted. The fans cheered, the teams played, and 17,000 unpaid extras from Miami ran around the field in terror as the lethal blimp descended. In Hollywood, they would have cost $1,090,210. “We’re here to be discovered,” chortled high school drama teacher Ralph Wakefield, who brought his class of 50 students.
Black Sunday will be released late this year, perhaps after the election. Although an actor resembling Gerald Ford was used in the Miami shooting, the film company is taking no chances. “We have look-alikes for Humphrey, Kennedy, Reagan and Jackson,” says Frankenheimer. “If necessary, we’ll reshoot the close-ups. In the long shots, they all look the same.”