ESKIMO NELL - Part 2
On April 22nd shooting began. Everything went smoothly although a few scenes and visual gags had to be curtailed or simplified due to the tight schedule.
At the end of shooting, Campbell turned his attention to editing the existing footage with the editor, Pat Foster (later to found the hugely successful Ritzy Cinema in Brixton). On the 31st of April, they presented their Rough Cut to Long and Jacobs.
Jacobs hated what he saw. He had expected a sex film for the ďdirty mac brigadeĒ and instead he had something, which would be virtually impossible to sell to that market. Long, on the other hand, although dismayed by his distributorís attitude, still clung to his belief in the film. To secure his position, however, he felt he now needed to take control of the situation. The result was a clash between himself and Campbell when Long took over creative control in the cutting room.
Leaving Long to commence the Fine Cut, Campbell and Armstrong moved back to Drumbeat at the beginning of June to start work on Tudor Gatesís latest production, Three For All: Gates assigning Campbell to direct and Armstrong to cast, A.P. and work with him on the screenplay. Additional to this, Armstrong continued working with Long and Foster on The Movie Makers throughout July, shooting pick-ups and linking shots and working in the cutting rooms on the Final Cut of the film before his commitments to Three For All took over completely.
At the end of August, Armstrong returned from Spain where Three For All had been shooting to find Long and Foster preparing for a final sound mix.
Then a bombshell struck. Despite Longís secrecy over the filmís intended title, he received news that a low budget Australian sex film had just been completed, entitled Eskimo Nell. Alarmed, Long determined to stake his claim first and immediately took out ads in the trade papers, announcing the completion of his film, Eskimo Nell.
Finally The Movie Makers had thrown off its cloak and revealed its true identity to the world.
Aware that any similarities between the two films would prove a threat to securing cinema exhibition, Long contacted the Australian producers who, to his further alarm, were already lining up potential distributors for their film in the UK.
This other Eskimo Nell had been produced by Don Carmody for Filmways, written and directed by Richard Franklin and starred Max Gillies as Deadeye Dick and Serge Lazareff as Mexican Pete in a comedy-drama concerning an old Westerner and his younger partner setting off on a Quixotic sexual quest to find the legendary girl of the title.
Relieved that the two films were completely dissimilar, Long was still concerned even when the Australian producers backed down and re-titled their film, The True Story Of Eskimo Nell.
Long knew that two films coming out more or less simultaneously with the same selling point in the title meant only one would succeed in the marketplace and he was determined to ensure his would be the box office winner. Now he was fighting against time to have his film in the cinemas first.
The first screening of Eskimo Nell took place for the cast and crew at the Hanover Grand Preview Theatre on September 16th 1974. Reactions to the film were ecstatic, revealing its potential for a mainstream comedy audience.
This potential was confirmed when one of the two major exhibitors, ABC (the other was Rank) saw the film and offered it a full Circuit Release, playing all their major cinemas across the country.
The offer was unprecedented: making it the first independent low-budget British sex comedy to breakthrough into the mainstream marketplace.
Jacobs, however, as the filmís distributor was dismayed by the news. For the first time he would be unable to operate as he normally did with the cost of only a couple of prints and a few posters. Now he had to pay out for hundreds of prints, a nationwide advertising campaign and organise press screenings.
A Magazine Screening of the film on October 9th and a Radio & TV Screening on October 17th confirmed that the film was working - even to highly sceptical and jaded press audiences. What, also, became clear was that the filmís satirically drawn characters were still highly recognisable despite name changes.
On the 7th January 1975, the Press screening was packed. Despite their customary disapproval and, in some cases, contempt for the exploitation market in any of its forms, the critics were completely surprised by the filmís satirical swipes at the very market from which it had arisen and, especially relished recognising the familiar industry figures it lampooned.
With an overall good press, Eskimo Nell opened in the ABC flagship cinema, West End Scene 2 on January 16th. It was followed by a full North London release on January 19th and a full South London release on January 26th before playing across the rest of the country.
Mainstream audiences had not seen or heard anything like it before: with its liberal use of four letter words, full nudity, outrageous sexual gags and dialogues and its uninhibited send-ups of movies. On many occasions the audienceís delight and laughter was so loud that it was impossible to hear the soundtrack. Word of mouth quickly spread and the film was held over for a second week in most situations and, in some cinemas, for several weeks.
As a post-script, The True Story Of Eskimo Nell (for certain territories re-titled Dick Down Under) did find a distributor in the UK and played in the sex cinemas to which Eskimo Nell would have been assigned had it not broken through into the hitherto unattainable mainstream. The history and ultimate fate of the two films perhaps showed more clearly than any other the enormous divide between the two marketplaces and their audiences.
Armstrong comments: ďIíve always had a soft spot for Nell. Itís very gratifying to see it still seems to work today for a whole new audience - especially when so many of its contemporary targets and references are no longer familiar which means, inevitably, the filmís satirical edge has become dulled. Likewise, dialogue and visual gags, which were considered outrageous, at the time, have now lost their shock value. Yet, despite all that, the film still makes people laugh and, somehow, seems to have survived through the generations. I think, like most vintage comedies, things which were once considered outrageous and risquť are now viewed as passť at their worst and charming at their best.Ē
When asked about his performance as Dennis in the film, he replied: ďThe strangest thing about that is I keep forgetting I was actually in it. I did at the time when it first came out. I always sit in with audiences for the first few weeks to learn from their reactions what works and what doesnít, for future reference. Because Iím so used to the anonymity of being behind the camera, Iíd tend to forget, when Iíve acted in a film, that Iím recognisable. So, going into cinemas to study reactions became a problem - because there was no way I could sit next to people, pretending to be just another audience member when I was up there on the big screen at the same time. Iíve experienced other actors having to deal with that problem when Iíve been with them but, for myself, I never really got used to knowing what to do or how to handle it when people would suddenly turn and stare at me - or, worse, accost me in the foyer or even the toilet or wherever. Itís always made me have great admiration for movie stars who have to cope with that kind of thing every day of their lives. That kind of loss of personal privacy really isnít much fun because it means you can never really relax - not even for a second. You always have to be on your guard, on the defensive. Whenever I start having regrets about not having pursued an acting career further, I always remind myself of that and think...as much as I enjoy the actual job of acting, I donít really know if Iíd enjoy the job of being famous...so, I guess Iím happier the way things worked out.Ē
Copyright © 2004 Michael Armstrong