Pierson's Tough Look at Death Row : Television: The director of HBO's 'Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture' asks hard questions of society.


Frank Pierson, who directed HBO's tough drama about capital punishment, "Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture," which airs again tonight on HBO, was a magazine journalist, working in Life magazine's Beverly Hills office, when he decided in the mid-'50s to try his hand at script-writing. It was the family trade; his mother had been a writer at Warner Bros.

Pierson took his $7,000 in profit-sharing and made it last two years. He grew a beard and sold nary a word. "On a Friday, the money was all gone and I shaved my beard so I could go job-hunting on Monday. You couldn't wear a beard and get a job in those days."

But that Friday afternoon his agent called to report first that he had sold one of Pierson's teleplays and second that he'd found Pierson a job as a story editor on "Have Gun Will Travel."

Pierson broke into directing doing episodes of "Have Gun." Later he directed "The Looking Glass War" as his first feature, and then the Barbra Streisand remake of "A Star Is Born" and "King of the Gypsies." As a screenwriter, he adapted "Cool Hand Luke," won an Oscar for his script of "Dog Day Afternoon" and recently co-authored "Presumed Innocent."

"Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture" was an original screenplay by Doug Magee, who as a Newsweek reporter-photographer had published a book in 1980 called "Slow Coming Dark" about a dozen Death Row inmates. The script had been optioned and dropped before Robert Cooper, a senior vice president of HBO, took it.

The project became viable when Roy Scheider agreed to play the burnt-out photographer--for Time magazine--who agrees to photograph the execution of a condemned man, at the condemned man's request.

"I've had strong feelings against capital punishment," Pierson said at lunch a few days ago, "ever since I read Arthur Koestler's very convincing arguments on the moral issues involved. Does society have the right at all to take a life? And isn't the chance of an error too great for execution to be accepted by a society that thinks of itself as moral?"

Magee's plot is highly melodramatic, a thickly plotted and suspenseful crime thriller; but, within Death Row itself, the film has the feeling of a docudrama, and the detailings--including the mad mumblings and shoutings in the background--were thoroughly researched, Pierson says.

Florida's Starke Prison near Gainesville was used for some establishing shots. The execution chamber itself was a set at Universal's new sound stages in Orlando.

"The witnesses are very close to the electric chair, no further than the next table," Pierson said, gesturing perhaps eight feet away. In an eerily touching moment, the warden kisses the condemned man on the forehead and whispers to him. The incident is based on a report from a witness at an actual execution.

"The idea," Pierson says, "is that the Death Row guards and the prison officials try to make the prisoner feel like a member of a team, as if they all have this thing to do well and they're all in it together. They're very afraid of violence at that last minute, and they try to brainwash the prisoners into thinking that violence would be a betrayal of the team, of their trust. But they've also got some control devices you don't see and they can break a man's arm very quickly if he starts to struggle."

The film's ending goes against conventional expectations and is the stronger for it. An alternative ending was written and shot and will be used in a European theatrical version, which Universal will distribute.

"The networks like to pick challenging subjects for their films," Pierson says. "But in the end they often trivialize them. This one follows through on the premise that is set up. It's a powerful experience for the audience whether you think Ray (played by Arliss Howard) is guilty or not. You're still faced with what it means to execute a man."

HBO's Cooper, who also OKd the recent production called "Seductions," short stories by Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy, may be helping to point the way, Pierson feels, toward a newly attractive boldness and innovation in cable programming.

"You have the potential," he says, "of a nurturing, encouraging creative environment that would make possible here what exists in London. I mean those crossovers in which actors, writers, directors, producers can move freely and easily between the stage and television, or the stage and television."

Pierson, a former president of the Writers Guild, has become so active in the Sundance Institute in Utah that he's bought a place of his own near by. There he and such colleagues as Larry Kasdan, Walter Bernstein and Sydney Pollack help young writers and directors develop new projects.

"You read about those astronomical prices being paid for scripts that don't sound that wonderful. But the good news is that the studios are more aware than ever that stories are important, scripts are everything."

Pierson is wearing a beard again.

The film airs on Tuesday and on Sept. 22, 24, 27 and 30.

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