By Craig Leask
The Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, which opened in 1887, is known for being the largest summer hotel in the world as well as housing the world’s longest front porch which extends to a length of 660 feet. If this wasn’t enough for boasting rights, it has also received iconic status through its connection to the 1980 romantic movie Somewhere in Time. The movie stars Christopher Reeve as Richard Collier, a successful young playwright who falls in love with the 1912 portrait of a beautiful young actress, Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) while visiting the hotel. The film was not a success at the box office and was pummeled by critics enjoying a mere 3 week run in theatres. It didn’t help matters that the initial release of the movie occurred during an actor’s strike which meant stars were not permitted to attend movie openings or promote a film on talk shows. This may have contributed to its lackluster initial response at theatres. The film finally found its legs when it started to be shown on cable TV stations, and eventually VHS rentals attracting a large following. Somewhere in Time is now considered a cult classic.
The movie is an adaptation of the book by Richard Matheson called “Bid Time Return”. Matheson was a talented author who concentrated mainly on science fiction, horror and fantasy stories. Throughout his career however, he continued to experiment with genres and mediums which included writing for movies and television. Matheson demonstrated his versatility in genres from SciFi (The Twilight Zone from 1959 – 1964) to westerns (The Lawman from 1958-1952). He also wrote a number of movies (Die! Die! My Darling! in 1965) and TV movies (The Night Stalker in 1972). To round out his talents, a number of his novels have also been turned into movies including I am Legend which was filmed three different times – once under his original title in 2007, as well as under the titles The Omega Man (1971) and The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Legend of Hell House (1973) and What Dreams May Come (1998), starring Robin Williams.
The concept for “Bid Time Return” originated during a trip Matheson took to Virginia City, Nevada where he was taken by a1896 portrait of an American Stage actress by the name of Maude Adams, hanging in a building by the odd name of “Piper’s Opera House”. She was a beautiful woman who became the highest paid performer of her day, the most popular actress in New York City and attracted hordes of admirers through her tours across the country.
Like the main character in his book, Matheson became obsessed with the woman in the photo. Research unveiled numerous mysterious facts about her life and career which led Matheson to realize that creatively, he had fallen in love with her. With this thought in mind, he set out to write the story of the power of love transcending time and called it “Bid Time Return”, a name he developed from a line in Shakespeare’s “Richard II”, “O call back yesterday, bid time return.”
For this work, Matheson wrote the novel while staying at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California, literally walking the hotel while dictating the story into a hand held tape recorder as it formulated in his mind. As such, the book was set in that hotel and it was hoped that the hotel would also be the setting for the movie once discussions to produce commenced.
In 1979, director Jeannot Szwarc and writers Richard Matheson and Stephen Deutsch connected to develop the screenplay for the movie to present to Universal. For this effort, Universal only gave the green light to film due to the fact that Szwarc had saved Jaws II (1978) for Universal and they essentially owed him the favor. Universal’s condition to proceed however, was the requirement to reduce the production budget by half.
Once this agreement was in place, the three visited the Hotel Del Coronado and deemed it not be suitable due to the modern updates which the hotel had incorporated since its original construction in 1888. These included items that would not allow the ability to portray the hotel during the 1912 scenes: window air conditioners, roof top television antennas, and neighbouring high rise buildings which would appear in blocking shots.
Knowing they had specific needs of a hotel (and now had a greatly reduced budget) scouting for locations commenced, eventually landing on The Grand Hotel for a variety of reasons: they needed a glorious turn of the century hotel; they needed a theatre and, most importantly, they required the ability to portray interior and exterior scenes in both the 1912 and 1980 time periods. Mackinac Island, Michigan, where the Grand Hotel is located fit the bill as it met these requirements and more – Mackinac Island does not allow any cars on the Island. All transportation is done by bicycle or horse and carriage, which fit in perfectly with their time period. To seal the deal, R.D. Musser, the hotel’s owner, offered the use of his hotel to Universal at no cost, so long as they guaranteed a complimentary depiction of the hotel in the film. This they did exceptionally well ensuring the Grand Hotel itself becomes one of the stars of the film.
As no cars are allowed on the island, special permission was required from the State Parks Commission to bring over five trailers of equipment and props to support the shoot. These trailers were brought across from the mainland by barge and, per the agreement with the Parks Commission, the trailers could only be moved after dark and could only travel as fast as a grown man could walk. To maintain this requirement, a man did walk in front of the trucks each time they were required to be moved to various locations on the island.
The only other “bending” of the no vehicles rule was the main character Richard driving his Fiat up to the hotel’s front door in the scene when he first arrives at the hotel in 1980.
As the filming was done during the summer season, and the producers were using the hotel at no cost, the hotel was fully functional and fully booked, which meant filming was required to be done in such a way as to not interfere with paying guests. This meant most filming in the hotel was required to be done after hours. The director was able to work within this constraint and demonstrated his talents well in many of the scenes, including the dramatic camera pan following the main character through the 213 foot long dining room full of costumed extras. Off hours shooting also involved assembling and disassembling front desk and lobby furniture within the main floor parlor numerous times throughout the shoot to avoid any interference with the hotel’s actual check in operation on another floor. To dramatically feature the portrait of Elise McKenna which is at the centre of the story, a “Hall of History” was created in the private dining room, conveniently located beside the parlor. This allowed the main character to happen across the photo as he is waiting to be checked in to his room.
Aside from locational shots in and around the Grand Hotel, which included the tennis pro shop, doubling as the residence of a long time hotel employee and the fully functional Grand Hotel Stables, the production team scoured the island for shooting locations to meet the needs of both current and historical components of the film. In fact, other than a four day shoot in Chicago, Somewhere in Time was filmed entirely on Mackinac Island.
Beyond the cinematography, one cannot sit through Somewhere in Time without being completely taken by the music. The music is built around Rachmaninov’s On a Theme of Paganini Op. 43: Variation 18 and complemented with an arranged score by John Barry. Initial budget constraints meant the production could not afford Barry and thus he was not approached to do the work. This changed when it was revealed that Jane Seymour was a friend of the composer and reached out to him to join the team. He did, accepting a percentage of the soundtrack sales in lieu of a set retainer. This act of generosity by Barry turned out to be a very lucrative deal as the soundtrack required an immediate 50,000 copy repress to meet initial demand. The soundtrack remains popular to this day.
As mentioned, once the movie hit cable, a momentous following quickly developed into a fan club which in turn fed additional showings, VHS and DVD releases. This following led The Grand Hotel in 1984 to host its first annual costumed Somewhere in Time weekend celebrations which continue to this day. During the first of the annual weekends, a permanent monument to Somewhere in Time in the form of a bronze plaque containing a laser engraved image from the movie was unveiled by the movies’ Director. It is mounted on a bolder at the lakefront location where the Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour first meet in the film.
In 2000 Universal released the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition DVD for Somewhere in Time, hosting the main actors Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Teresa Wright and Stephen Simon at a gala red carpet event in NYC, finally making up for Universal’s poor support shown during the film’s initial release. Christopher Plumber was the only actor not able to attend.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.