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July 28, 2022
Garrett Brown (left) Albert Finney (center), Diane Venora (to Finney's right), Director Michael Wadleigh (facing away) in the Bronx on set of 'Wolfen' (1981).
It was 1981 and a nimble Garrett Brown was swiftly stalking humans with his wolfish low mode Steadicam rig, through Battery Park and leaping through the rubble at Seabury Place & East 172nd Street in the Bronx, NY—creating the vision of Wolfen's unseen lead character.
The language of camera moves was evolving during the early years of Steadicam and some of it got baked into the cinephile vocabulary as a result of Wolfen.
It wasn't the first time the Steadicam originator had portrayed this POV Garrett Brown explains "In all the early films I did point-of-views here and there, as a cut to coverage of an actor."
But Wolfen was a different animal. "I was the point of view of the Wolfens themselves, who were supernaturally large, powerful and bloodthirsty wolves who managed to live in Manhattan. It was a really funny concept," recalls Garrett Brown. Because the Steadicam would portray the personality of the "monsters", there were things that had to be worked out. "We all agreed that by nature, these creatures were fantastically fast. In order to make their point-of-views, I was in low mode for the entire thing. The film's director, Michael Wadleigh and I tested the optical scheme for their POV in an old colonial churchyard with hundreds of decaying, toppling, ancient burial stones." Wadleigh had a coat made like a chip chart blown up the size of his upper body to inform the lab effort. Brown remembers," jumping from gravestone to gravestone as we pursued each other. The verger of this church came out to discover a man with a floating sewing machine—me—pursuing a man with an odd coat of many colors."
With the antagonist established, they shot scenes throughout New York City. "We had some wonderful stuff in Battery Park, including one of the coldest scenes in the coldest winter that any of us could recall, says Brown. "People who were on Wolfen speak with a shudder of that time because none of us had ever been colder." His lens motors refused to pull focus unless incinerated by a ‘blonde’ 1k light, but the ARRI camera kept chugging on, so they followed suit.
"I was loping along at top speed, running 12 frames per second so we had to be sure that everything else in the background was half speed, like cars passing by and so on. But boy, what shots we got of the Wolfen's points of view—low, fast, hopping over stuff. I would reach out as far as I could, one-handed, and lurch over piles of rubble, then dart along a fence with iron palings, then pause to gaze at a chauffeur driver."
Along with Garrett Brown's deft moves, production further identified the Wolfen's vision for the viewer. "It was day for night," he explains, "but they solarized the shot so that the sky went black and turned anything really bright into something really black and processed the hell out of it. So that was allegedly what the wolves saw. Right?"
Left: The set of 'Wolfen' on Seabury & E 172nd St in the Bronx in 1981. Right: Seabury & E 172nd Street in 2022.
They shot for weeks in the Bronx taking advantage of its degraded condition of the time. Among the piles of rubble from demolished buildings, production built a set from an abandoned church. "It was one of the best looking, most interesting sets I've ever seen", says Garrett Brown. "Complete inside and outside, it included a church tower that was erected there as if half the roof had fallen in. The glass was gone and it was full of rubble. Then Controlled Demolition blew up an old office building and dropped it just beyond this church in the background." It was caught on multiple cameras including the Steadicam which Garrett Brown describes as "full tilt, running point-of-view, wolf running through newly made rubble."
Wolfen, starring Albert Finney, Diane Venora, and Gregory Hines, was released theatrically in the United States by Orian Pictures through Warner Bros. on July 24, 1981. Today it can be seen on Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu Movie & TV Store. Still fascinating to horror film aficionados, even today there is a new documentary in production on the making of Wolfen.