WHEN MARTIANS ROAMED THE EARTH ( THE STORY BEHIND “THE WAR OF THE WORLDS” )

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Ever wondered what an alien invasion sounds like?

Well, 75 years ago, on October 30th 1938, large swathes of America got to find out. Listeners to CBS radio heard their regular programming interrupted by news reports of strange eruptions in space, and objects crashing to earth.  That was only the beginning. It wasn’t long before the eastern seaboard was gripped by panic, and people were flooding into the streets – trying to escape what they thought was a full-scale Martian invasion.

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Meanwhile, word of the panic spread to the CBS studio, where Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company of actors were gleefully rampaging their way through Howard Koch’s adaptation of this science-fiction classic.

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With little inkling of the furore outside, Orson Welles decided to defuse the situation. After speaking the last scripted lines of Professor Pierson, he announced – “out of character” – that the program had “…no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be”. With an impish smile in his voice he concluded: “And remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight.  That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living-room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and there’s no-one there, that was no Martian… it’s Halloween.”

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They went off-the-air. Then, leaving the cocoon of the studio, Welles was confronted by the magnitude of the panic he had unleashed. The laughter died on his lips. Even the master showman had been blindsided.

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History was made that night. It was the first major media “Got ya!” and it turned Welles, already a cause célèbre in the theater world, into a media star. Hollywood came calling with an unprecedented contract, which resulted in the equally unprecedented innovations of Citizen Kane and a film career of, in equal measures, maddening genius and frustrated intentions. Maybe the Martians had the last laugh after all.

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When I was producing radio theater for National Public Radio I had occasion to revisit that legendary night of broadcasting. L.A.TheatreWorks decided to record an updated version of Howard Koch’s script for Orson Welles with members of Star Trek, old and new generation.

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Thus Wil Wheaton and Gates McFadden joisted at the microphones with Brent Spiner, while Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, took the central role of Professor Pierson.

Leonard-Nimoy-MRT-Friday-AdventureHis voice commanded the airwaves in a manner all of these Hollywood old-timers, who grew up doing radio, theater and live TV, have to themselves. You felt every syllable of his awe and fear in the face of the alien invader. Researching the script for a subsequent rebroadcast on Halloween (naturally) I delved into the history of that original transmission, and of the book that started it all. There were a few surprises along the way. (In particular, Simon Callow’s excellent biography of Orson Welles provided a wealth of anecdotal material and pertinent observation, some of which I reference in the following.)

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H.G. Wells at the microphone in 1929

Science fiction, it is fair to say, was invented by H.G. Wells, along with Jules Verne.

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Wells had found a new way to explore the greatest aspirations and deepest fears of humanity through the metaphors of science and technology, and the worlds they were unveiling.  But he knew the quest for knowledge was a double-edged sword, and fully exploited the unease that walks hand-in-hand with our boundless curiosity for the unknown.

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For his most famous prophetic warning of the fragility of  civilisation, Wells exploited the current fascination with the possibility that “We are not alone”.

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In 1894, the planet Mars had been near enough to Earth to be observed in detail. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli identified linear patterns on the surface that he named “canalli” which, in Italian, means “channels”.

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A page from Schiaparelli’s diary, 1890.

But in one of the great mistranslations of all time, English-speaking peoples thought he meant “canals”, leading to widespread speculation about the possibility of life on the red planet. Another observer claimed to have seen a strange light flashing on Mars, fuelling the debate.

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Schiaparelli’s map of Mars, 1888

Meanwhile H.G. Wells was making his own observations closer to the Earth.  Germany had unified, and embarked on a program of militarization. Wells and others feared this might lead to war in Europe. Inspired to fire his own warning shot, he turned to the public’s fascination with the possibility of life on Mars as a way to warn of the danger.

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Title page from 1913 edition

In his hands, the utopian vision of disparate cultures uniting, of civilisation reaching beyond the stars, disintegrated in the beam of a heat ray.

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1899 Cover Art

Instead humanity faced the nightmare of a pre-emptive first strike by superior technologies of Armageddon, serving masters whose only thought was: what was the point of sharing when you could have it all?

Title page of 1st edition, 1898.

Title page of First Edition, 1898

Wells told his fantastical fable in a semi-documentary style, giving it a credibility and power it might have otherwise lacked.

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When, in 1938, Howard Koch came to adapt War of the Worlds for the radio broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air, he faced two major challenges. How to find a modern-day equivalent for the book’s hyper-realistic style, and how to overcome the dated, provincial aspects of the novel because of its period setting in  England. He decided to move the action to America, randomly selecting the New Jersey village of Grover’s Mill as the site of the invasion. From then on, realistic imperatives drove the script. Koch made the medium the message, turning radio’s ability to broadcast live events as they happened into an integral part of telling the story.

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Welles with John Houseman

It was a brilliant narrative strategy, but Orson Welles and John Houseman, co-founders of the Mercury Theatre Company, were initially underwhelmed by the script. Preoccupied by what had turned into a hellish theatre production of Danton’s Death, they picked at the script in their usual way, pulling it about structurally and demanding more realism.  Welles dismissed it as “corny”. A lot of emphasis was placed on sound effects, in the hope they would distract attention from the thinness of the piece.

Despite – or because of this – Welles and his fellow actors went for broke, playing it for all it was worth.

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Everything was pushed to the extreme – the apparent breakdowns in transmissions, the desperate eruptions of dance music – all held longer than would be thought possible in order to build suspense. The vividness of the dramatization echoed the real-life newscasts whose bulletins so frequently concerned events ominously gathering in Europe. But whether Houseman or Welles intended any serious parallel is debatable: they just wanted to liven up the story, using what was going on all around them, on the air and in the papers.

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So why did listeners think there was a real invasion from Mars being reported? Houseman attributed it to a chance circumstance. Broadcasting on another wavelength was the hugely popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show.

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At twelve minutes past eight the improbable principal act –  a ventriloquist and his assorted dummies – took a break, and so did listeners. They reached for their dials, surfed the frequencies, and happened upon a news report, well under way, of the Martian invasion.  As the play progressed so did the hysteria.

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An estimate for the number of American families who had radios at the time was  twenty seven-and-a-half million. The radio was frequently the principal, and often the only, source of information for Americans about the wider world.  And in those days listeners trusted unquestioningly that what they heard was the truth. Despite announcements that this was a dramatization of a book, people took to the streets, screaming that it was the end of the world.

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There are many colorful stories of that night. Here’s one of them. In Staten Island, Connie Casamissina was about to get married. Latecomers to the reception took the microphone from the singing waiter and announced the invasion. As Connie recalled: “Everyone ran to get their coats.  I took the microphone and started to cry – Please don’t spoil my wedding-day! – and then my husband started singing hymns, and I decided I was going to dance the Charleston. And I did, for 15 minutes straight. I did every step there is in the Charleston.”

After the program went off the air, terrified listeners who’d called CBS angrily threatened violence against Welles and the company, after discovering they were victims of what they thought had been a malicious hoax. One employee recalled: “Someone had called threatening to blow up the CBS building, so we called the police and hid in the ladies’ room on the studio floor.”

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The fallout from the broadcast was extensive. How would the populace have reacted in the event of a real air raid?

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There were calls for censorship,  but freedom of speech on the airwaves was fiercely defended.  In a striking piece in the New York Tribune,  columnist Dorothy Thompson acclaimed the broadcast as “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time… It is the story of the century… Far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important of contributions to the social sciences… He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the menace is not from Mars but from the theatrical demagogues.”

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Danish edition

As for Orson, he made a chastened appearance in a newsreel, adopting the air of a schoolboy who’s not sure whether he’s gotten away with a prank.

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Welles at press conference after the broadcast

He wasn’t as worried about society’s judgment as he was about potentially more serious, legal penalties.  In the end nothing stuck, and it all turned out to be one of the most fortuitous events of his career.  But his personal creative responsibility for the show had been negligible, beyond the flair of his direction and performance.  In a foreshadowing of his attempts to take credit away from Herman Mankiewicz for the script of Citizen Kane, Welles repeatedly attempted to deny Howard Koch’s authorship of War of the Worlds. Unsuccessfully, to his considerable annoyance.

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There’s no evidence to support his contention that the program was planned as a Halloween prank all along. The idea was improvised on the spot as a sop to the panic released during the broadcast. Nor was there a conscious attempt to play on fears of a European invasion. The fact was that Welles barely thought about the program, being completely occupied until the last minute by his losing struggle with the theatre production of Danton’s Death.

However, he did get a Hollywood contract out of it.

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Grover's Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.

Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.

LILLIAN GISH in “The Wind”

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In celebration of Lillian Gish whose 120th birthday falls today. Below you can watch her introducing one of her greatest films, The Wind (1928).

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It is one of the most remarkable American films of the silent era, produced by its star, and helmed by the Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (anglicized to Seastrom), who later in life played the old Professor in Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”.

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The version to see is the one presented by TCM in collaboration with Oscar-winning film historian, Kevin Brownlow, with a specially composed musical score by Carl Davis. (Music buffs might be interested to know that the orchestrators on this score, which includes all manner of orchestral “special effects”, were Colin and David Matthews, leading avant-garde composers in their own right. Colin has also worked extensively with the Benjamin Britten Estate to bring many of Britten’s “lost” compositions back into the repertoire).

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I attended the premiere of this version of The Wind at the London Film Festival in the 80s, and it was a knockout.

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At a later screening in New York’s Radio City Music Hall I had a chance to meet Ms. Gish, and she was the personification of charm and old-world Hollywood graciousness. The following clip, alas, features music other than Carl’s, but it gives you an idea of the extraordinary imagery that drives this story of a girl pushed to the limit of her sanity by events in this inhospitable, windswept country.

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THE GARBO EFFECT

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Today would have been Greta Garbo’s 108th birthday. She is still considered one of the greatest sirens of the silver screen, a truly iconic figure embodying all the mystery and allure that the camera can bestow on the feminine form.

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Want proof? Look no further than the following.

The year was 1926.

Filming a pivotal scene for Flesh and the Devil, the story of an illicit romance á la Anna Karenina, director Clarence Brown had little idea of how life was about to mirror art.

It was the scene where the leading lady, Greta Garbo, was to meet her great love, John Gilbert, for the first time. In real life as well as on screen.

Flesh and the Devil station

It’s the scene in the train station (alas, not available in clip form). When you watch it, you can almost believe you are watching the actors falling in love at the same time as their characters do. According to Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, whom I met at a screening of the film in New York, that is exactly what happened.

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Director Clarence Brown later remarked upon his leading lady:  “She had something behind the eyes that told the whole story. On the screen Garbo multiplied the effect of the scene I had taken. It was something she had that nobody else ever had.”

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Creating Garbo’s deliriously sensual aura was the work of cinematographer William Daniels, a veteran collaborator of maverick director Erich von Stroheim. Using heavy gauzes and filters over the camera lens, he wraps the lovers in a shimmering passion and eroticism.

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Listen to how Carl Davis’s score enhances the effect with its allusions to Richard Strauss, especially the Moonlight music from Capriccio.

You’re about to watch the climactic scene where the lovers kiss for the first time. It begins at a ball. Gilbert can think only of the woman he met at the train station. Will he see her again?

They move into the garden…..

Gilbert and Garbo were to marry. The story goes that, on his wedding day — a grand, Hollywood affair — Garbo failed to show. Gilbert got drunk and took it out on his boss, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer swore he would destroy Gilbert’s career. Gilbert never made the transition to talkies, ostensibly because of his reedy voice. But maybe the apocryphal version of how events unfolded holds the greater truth: could any man ever survive loving Garbo? (Or pissing off Louis B.?)

Garbo insisted that Gilbert co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

Even though Gilbert’s career was in decline, Garbo insisted that he co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

While Gilbert spiraled downwards, Garbo continued to ascend higher into the Hollywood heavens. With the arrival of talkies her accented voice beguiled as much as her looks, and she later revealed a talent for comedy in Lubitsch’s sublime Ninotchka (1939). Audiences were so accustomed to Garbo smoldering rather than smirking that the studio used her new-found levity as a log-line on their posters.

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If you’re ever in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, look no further.

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Even MGM’s Leo the Lion seems cowed by the Legend that was Garbo

Forget Helen of Troy.  It was Garbo who not only launched a thousand and more ships of romantic dreams, but then dashed them upon the rocks of her early retirement and retreat from the world. She was, finally, alone.

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But in the garden of film immortals she awaits her lovers still….

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KUBRICK at LACMA

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As the stunning Kubrick exhibition prepares to depart Los Angeles, here is a quick tour (with some additional photos).  Think of this as a prelude to a future perambulation through the Kubrickian maze….

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“Essentially the film is a mythological statement.  Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level, rather than in a specific, literal explanation.”  — Stanley Kubrick.

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Kubrick's cameras and lenses

The altering eye: Kubrick’s cameras and lenses

From Kubrick’s photos of New York life in the 1940s in Look magazine:

Cartoonist Peter Arno with model

Cartoonist Peter Arno with model

From Kubrick's photos of New York life in the 40s in Look magazine

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Deep space and wide angles — Kubrick signatures

"The Shining"

The Shining

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The following shot — a Kubrick favorite

"Full Metal Jacket"

Full Metal Jacket

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THE KILLING in bed

Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray

Kubrick's chess set and "Paths of Glory"

The art of strategy — the strategist in art. On set and onscreen Kubrick always had a chess game in progress (here in Paths of Glory)

On locations shooting "Paths of Glory"

On location shooting Paths of Glory

Storyboards for "Spartacus" by Saul Bass

The patterns of war: storyboards for Spartacus by the legendary Saul Bass

Costume for Crassus (Laurence Olivier)

Costume for Crassus (Laurence Olivier)

The Senate set

The Senate set

Matte painting for "Spartacus" by the legendary Peter Ellenshaw

Matte painting for Spartacus by the legendary Peter Ellenshaw

Finished scene

Finished scene

Shooting Spartacus

Shooting Spartacus

Contemplating Lolita....

Contemplating James Mason contemplating Lolita….

Contemplating Lolita

…. and Lolita contemplating us…..

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Kubrick and Sue Lyon (Lolita) photographing the iconic scene

Promotional shot of Sue Lyon by Bert Stern

Promotional shot of Sue Lyon by Bert Stern

(More photos from Bert Stern’s legendary shoot can be found here).

Model of the War Room set from "Dr. Strangelove"

Designing Armageddon: model of the War Room set from Dr. Strangelove

Copy of source material for "Dr. Strangelove", with Kubrick's notes for possible film titles

Copy of source material for Dr. Strangelove, with Kubrick’s notes for possible film titles

Kubrick drawing on Strangelove bombs

STRANGELOVE riding the bomb

Riding the Bomb

Apres doomsday survival pack

Who says doomsday is the end of the world?

Peter Sellers filming Kubrick playing chess with George C. Scott on set of "Dr. Strangelove"

Peter Sellers filming Kubrick playing chess with George C. Scott on set of Dr. Strangelove

Polish poster for "2001: A Space Odyseey"

Polish poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey

"2001" co-author Arthur C. Clarke with Kubrick on set

2001 co-author Arthur C. Clarke with Kubrick on set

Stargazer....

Stargazer….

Designing movement for the Dawn of Man

Designing movement for the Dawn of Man

Intuitive thinking... ("2001: A Space Odyssey")

Grasping new concepts (2001: A Space Odyssey)

The Future is Here

2001 in 1968

2001 space station interior

Model of the giant centrifuge set

Model of the giant centrifuge set

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The real thing

Filming inside the centrifuge set

Filming inside the centrifuge set

Unattended Monolith

Caution: Unattended Monolith

Early thoughts were to "fly" the monolith with wires. This idea was later abandoned.

Early thoughts were to “fly” the monolith with wires. This idea was later abandoned.

Suspended model of the White Room ("2001")

The alien in the familiar: suspended model of the White Room where Man takes the next step in his evolution (2001: A Space Odyssey)

One possible future of Man —

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The future of Man?

or another —

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Even Mannequin Alex inspires unease

Even mannequin Alex inspires unease (A Clockwork Orange)

Design sketch for Alex's room

Design sketch for Alex’s room

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Fallout from the film led to Kubrick withdrawing it from circulation in the UK for 27 years. I had to travel to Paris to see it for the first time, dubbed into French

CLOCKWORK design sketches

Set design sketches by John Barry

Milk anyone?

Got milk?

"Barry Lyndon"

In which our Hero lies amidst the illusions of his invulnerability (Barry Lyndon)

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Kubrick would use location photos to storyboard, as with this shot of a carriage

Capturing candlelight -- the camera for "Barry Lyndon", complete with high speed Zeiss lens

Customized camera and lens for capturing the impossible beauty of Barry Lyndon

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“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night;

But oh, my foes, and ah, my friends —

It gives a lovely light.”

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Early poster design by Saul Bass

Early poster design by Saul Bass

Kubrick and Jack Nicholson on set

Kubrick and Jack Nicholson on set

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” (The Shining)

"Hello, Danny!"

“Helloooo, DANNY!”

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What critic Michael Ciment calls “the return of the repressed”, a strand of behaviour that weaves throughout Kubrick’s work, becoming a murderous psychosis signalled by a telltale look:

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Private Pyle (Full Metal Jacket):

"The return of the repressed" (Pyle's breakdown in "Full Metal Jacket")

"Full Metal Jacket"

The duality of Man: Joker’s helmet from Full Metal Jacket

Enemy -- thy name is woman

Enemy — thy name is Woman!

"Aryan Papers" Installation (abandoned project)

Cataclysms echoing endlessly through time: Aryan Papers installation (abandoned film project)

Masques of the Red Death

In flagrante delecto — Masques of the Red Death….

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Masks of marriage…..

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and celebrity….

The masks of marriage -- and celebrity

“Who’s been sleeping in my bed…..?”

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In the room the people come and go….

"We'll meet again"

“We’ll meet again…”

Talking of Michelangelo….

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“…. some sunny day”

-- and "Cut!"

“…. and — CUT!”

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