The Twilight Zone Tragedy
Out of the Twilight Zone
Movie people commonly refer to two categories of workers: "above the line" and "below the line." The first group consists of actors, producers and directors. The second, larger group includes camera operators, stunt personnel, makeup artists and technicians of all sorts. In The Twilight Zone, unit production manager Dan Allingham oversaw most of the below the line hiring. Allingham was also first assistant director.
The second assistant director, Anderson House, had reservations about working children after hours and around a helicopter and special-effects explosives. He shared those concerns with Allingham. House wanted to know if Landis planned to film the kids during the daytime and artificially simulate night, then insert those shots into ones actually made at night. Allingham told him no. Later House asked if Allingham knew if Landis had considered using dummies or dwarf stunt people instead of children. Allingham replied that Landis had rejected those ideas because he thought they would look phony. House pursued the issue and Allingham told him there was no point in discussing it further.
In early July 1982, Landis asked George Folsey to locate two young Asian children for the roles. Folsey agreed to do so despite misgivings. Production assistant Cynthia Nigh recalled Folsey coming out of a meeting with Landis and production manager Dan Allingham. The trio discussed the illegal hiring of kids and, according to Nigh, Folsey joked, "We'll probably all be thrown in jail for this!"
Dr. Chen then approached Dr. Daniel Le and his wife Kim-Hoa, parents of a 7-year-old boy named My-ca (Farber and Green spell it sans hyphen). Little My-ca was an outgoing child who loved getting his picture taken. When told that he could be in a movie, the lad jumped up and down, shouting, "I like it! I like it!"
The youngsters were introduced to John Landis who thought the cute children were perfect for the parts.
On the night of July 22, 1982, Renee and My-ca were on location at Indian Dunes Park. According to "Death in the Twilight Zone," a Rolling Stone article on the case, "The park is actually a private property . . . enclosed by steep, chaparral-covered cliffs. At the base of one of those cliffs, on the south shore of the Santa Clara River — a shallow, slow-moving stream that irrigates orange and avocado groves a few miles to the west — a 'Vietnamese Village' had been assembled out of bamboo poles, palm thatch and cardboard."
There were several delays in shooting.
At one point, the pilot of the helicopter, Dorcey Wingo, talked about the scene with Vic Morrow. The actor was planning to toss a stick at the helicopter as he escaped across the river and wondered if that would be a problem. Wingo worried that an object contacting the rotor could be dangerous. Perhaps it would not do any harm, he suggested, if Morrow threw a lightweight piece of balsa.
It was after 2:00 a.m. when the children's scene was about to start. Both of Chen's parents were there as was Kim-Hoa Le, My-ca's mother. Landis wanted to add some more realism to the youngsters' appearance so he smeared a little mud on their faces and tore holes in their clothing.
To set the children at ease, Morrow made funny faces. Both youngsters giggled uncontrollably. They could not stop when the camera started rolling and Landis had to repeatedly halt the scene and tell the kids to quit laughing. He got the scene he wanted at 3:30 a.m. Their parents were given envelopes with $500 in cash inside and told the children would be needed again the next night.
The kids showed up late July 23, 1982. Renee accompanied by her mother and My-ca by his father. It was the night they were going to film the climactic scene of Bill carrying two children across the river away from the attacking helicopter ending with his vowing, "I'll keep you safe, kids! I swear to God!" as the village exploded in the background.
At 9:30 p.m., Landis needed a shot before that one. Renee and My-ca were in a hut, and Morrow was to pick them up and carry them to the shore. Landis was directing the scene from several feet out in the water. A water bomb exploded and Renee started crying because dust got into her eyes.
Concerned, Shyan-Huei Chen asked George Folsey, "Is it dangerous?"
"No, not dangerous," he assured her, "just a loud noise."
The director comforted Renee. Then the two children, with their parents, went back to a motor home to rest up for the final scene.
That scene's first shot, of the helicopter heading toward the mock village, was filmed at 11:30 p.m. Pilot Wingo sat in the cockpit with Dan Allingham, who was focusing a spotlight on the scene underneath.
Vic Morrow stood in the river. Technicians fired guns, cueing special-effects experts to detonate bombs. Flames flew toward the chopper. A water ball splattered the windshield and Wingo could not see out of it. He put his head out of the window and swore because the heat burned him.
A fire-safety officer named Richard Ebentheuer told his superior, George Hull, he was concerned that the helicopter might crash because of the size of the blasts. Hull told his underling to take his fears to the filmmakers.
Ebentheuer let out an expletive and said, "The helicopter will be on the ground!"
Later, Ebentheuer was asked in court why he did not take Hull's advice and report his fears directly to the moviemakers. He testified, "That's not the way the chain of command works in the fire department." Thus, neither Hull nor Ebentheuer took the latter's criticisms up with the filmmakers.
When the helicopter landed, Wingo told Allingham to let Landis know that the explosions should not be so close to his aircraft. "You're right," Allingham agreed, saying, "Safety first." Camera operator Roger Smith said he would not film it unless someone made sure the explosives did not get so close to the helicopter. Allingham assured him too that he would take it up with Landis. Allingham later told Smith not to worry because he had spoken to the director and Landis said that in the next scene they "would be flying over the water filming Vic and the two kids."
Assistant camera operator Randy Robinson and Wingo were discussing the intense heat of the fireball and, according to Outrageous Conduct, a smiling Landis told them, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"
My-ca and Renee were found sleeping in the trailer. George Folsey and an assistant woke them up and asked if the kids wanted a bite to eat.
Later, both parents would claim that Folsey warned them against letting firefighters on the set know that the children were employed. "If the firemen approach you," he supposedly said, "please tell them that you are not working for us. Say you are my friend, you are here to help me. Don't tell them anything about the money or the children working." Since Chen's English was poor, Folsey allegedly asked Dr. Le to repeat the message to her. He did but in English because he was Vietnamese, she was Chinese, and he did not speak her native tongue.
As Chen and Dr. Le stood with other spectators watching the helicopter approach the faux village, anxiety seized Chen. "Is it dangerous?" she asked Dr. Le.
"George told me it would be scary," he replied, "but he said not to worry."
At 2:20 a.m., John Landis ordered the filming to start.
Vic Morrow went into the knee-deep water, holding a child under each arm.
The director shouted through his bullhorn at the helicopter, "Lower! Lower! Lower!" An assistant repeated the order to the pilot through a walkie-talkie.
"Fire! Fire! Fire!" Landis commanded. Machine gunners Gary McLarty and Kenny Endoso fired as the aircraft descended. A special effects technician set off simulations of shots hitting the water.
James Camomile, a burly, soft-spoken technician, was in charge of setting off bombs in the back of the village. He worked with a firing board on which he ran a nail across to detonate explosions. Camomile had a welder's hood on his head to keep dust out of his eyes. Another technician, Jerry Williams, set off blasts at another side of the village. Two camera operators ran up a slope to get away from the pain of the heat.
The blasts terrified Daniel Le who, according to "Death in the Twilight Zone," was reminded of what he had witnessed in the actual war in Vietnam. "All the memory of the war came to my mind," he claimed. "I was so horrified. I was screaming. The second blast, I fell down on the ground . . . I cried, 'God!' . . . I was so fearful, and I knew danger. It was not something made up, but real danger."
Wingo felt his craft was in trouble and had difficulty guiding it through the fireballs. Sitting beside him in the cockpit, Allingham was alarmed and told the pilot to get out of there.
On the ground, Camomile did not know of the helicopter's troubles. He detonated two charges close together and those bombs, in some way, harmed the aircraft.
The helicopter went out of control.
"That's a wrap!" John Landis shouted through the loudspeaker and the standard, banal words signaling the end of filming day sounded sickeningly incongruous. "Leave your equipment where it is. Everyone go home. Please, everyone go home."
The mother of Renee Chen and the father of My-ca Le were screaming. Taken to a local hospital, they were treated for shock, then driven home.
Some cast and crew believed telling everyone to immediately go home was misguided. Script supervisor Katherine Wooten commented, according to Farber and Green, "It might have been better if we had stayed together for awhile to console each other."