The All-Star – Chapter Ten

Jon Fontana (left) at Antioch High School, 1960

Born in 1943, Jonathan Thebolt Fontana was a triple-threat all-star athlete in basketball, football, and track, at Washington High School in Antioch, California. His sister, Mary Ellen, was the best all-around female athlete. Jon Guterres, who also attend this high school, remembered that Fontana, who was two years older, was “very cool and very low-key.”

Jim and Artie Mitchell – who would later make a name for themselves in the world of pornography – also attended this high school. They were also big fans of all-star Jon Fontana. They all came out of Antioch High School.

In college, Jon Fontana, a thoughtful, articulate, and insightful young man, got a degree in philosophy before serving in the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s.

In the early 1970s, with no previous film experience, he was working as a producer for his former school chums, the Mitchell Brothers, at their notorious O’Farrell Theater, interviewing prospective performers for pornographic films.

Jon Fontana at Antioch High School, 1959

At that time, before the invention of home video, pornographic film production was a staple for film workers in the Bay Area. Many of my fellow crew members paid the rent, early in their careers, working on X-rated films.

One day, during the filming of one of their many adult films, Jim Mitchell’s cameraman didn’t show up for work. Mitchell pulled Fontana out of a casting session and handed him the 16mm Arriflex BL motion picture camera. “I need you to be the shooter today,” he said.

Fontana held the heavy camera in his hands. He knew nothing about film or photography. Always a conscientious crew member, the following day on his way to work, he stopped at Adolf Gasser’s on Second Street and purchased a copy of the cameraman’s bible – the American Cinematographer Manual. Adolph Gasser had staked the Mitchell Brothers to their first Nagara and 16mm camera.

Jon Fontana was in the right place at the right time. A few months later, the Mitchell brothers began production on their first big-budget X-rated feature, Behind the Green Door (1972).

Jim Mitchell could have hired any of a number of excellent local directors of photography. Jon Fontana seems an unlikely choice – he’d never shot a film before. Dave Meyers, who lived across the bridge, was a master of handheld cinematography. But Jim Mitchell elected to use Jon Fontana – probably the least experienced director of photography in town. But as evidenced by the innovative hand-held cinematography in the now classic Behind the Green Door, Fontana proved to be a very capable and creative director of photography, even on his maiden voyage.

“Jon Fontana could do anything!” Jon Guterres said of his high school hero. Several scenes in Behind the Green Door were shot on location at On Broadway, Jon Guterres father’s legitimate theater in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

Fontana studied the big red book – the American Cinematographer Manual. He’d been a star athlete in high school. Not only was he disciplined and driven – he was in great physical shape, and had no trouble hand-holding the heavy twenty-two-pound 16mm Arriflex BL camera, which brought an immediacy to the cinematography, reminiscent of documentary or live news.

Dana Fuller rigged the soundman’s Nagra tape recorder so that it was connected by wire to the camera, allowing them to remain in sync anytime the camera rolled, without audio cues or slates. This gave Fontana the ability to change camera positions quickly and silently without breaking the performers concentration during the sex sequences, making the action feel more immediate and exciting.

Behind the Green Door was the first X-rated film of its kind, produced for about $18,000. With deferred payments for the cast and crew bringing the total cost to $60,000, it was the largest budget for any X-rated film up until to that time. The movie went on to earn an unprecedented $35 million, broadening the horizons of the adult film industry, and making the Mitchell Brothers rich. It was the first pornographic movie to break into the mainstream.

“In terms of lighting, photography, technical experimentation and erotic content,” Arthur Knight wrote of Behind the Green Door, in the Saturday Review, “it stands pretty much alone. It’s sex as ritual, sex as fantasy, and sex as it can only be in the movies.”

The film’s success was facilitated by a solid public relations campaign emphasizing how the X-rated film’s star, the wholesome Marilyn Chambers, had modeled as the “Ivory Soap girl” on the Ivory Snow soap flake box, posing as a mother holding a baby under the tag line “99 & 44/100% pure.”

Much of the film was shot at Stage A, at 991 Tennessee Street, which was then owned by Al Niggemeyer. One of the first things the Mitchell brothers did after leasing the stage, was to install a basketball hoop so the crew could enjoy some recreation between takes.

Jon Fontana hired Dana Fuller, who has ten years his senior, as his gaffer. “Don’t touch the f-stop,” Dana whined. “Just leave it at 3.5. I’m putting a piece of gaffers tape over it, so you don’t try to adjust it.”

Jon Fontana had never edited a movie before. He cut Behind the Green Door in the garage on Aztec Street in San Francisco, using only a sound reader and a 4-inch movie scope and two rewinds. Despite his inexperience (or perhaps due to it) his unconventional editing greatly enhances the film.

After the completion of Behind the Green Door, Jon lived at Stage A for a year.

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Dana Fuller – Fontana’s gaffer on Behind the Green Door – was a bi-polar, somewhat sociopathic man, with an almost sadistic mean streak. Today it would be recognized that he was somewhere on “the spectrum.”

Dana Lloyd Fuller, Jr., was born in San Francisco in 1928. His great-grandfather, William Parmer Fuller (1827-1890) founded W.P. Fuller & Co. paint and glass company of San Francisco. Dana was an only child who grew up in the company of three live-in servants, in his father’s mansion in Hillsborough, twenty miles south of San Francisco. The family spent their summers in the beautiful town of Ross, in Marin County.

Dana’s mother, Maxine E. Miller, the daughter of an Iowa-born stockbroker, was a teacher at Menlo Park High School. Dana’s wealthy father and namesake, the heir to the Fuller paint fortune, was a polo player, a sportsman, a pilot, and an alcoholic. Consequently, Dana only drank iced tea. Dana’s dad didn’t like him, perhaps because the boy was “different.” His dad wouldn’t buy him a radio, so at the age of eight, Dana, practically an idiot savant, built his own working radio.

Dana was the black sheep of the family. They say that he didn’t get any inheritance. But Dana was a “goldbug” and had invested in platinum, palladium, and rhodium. When catalytic converters, which used lots of these precious metals, were required on automobiles, Dana became very wealthy.

Cinematographer Owen Roizman

When he wanted to, Dana could solve any problem. The great cinematographer Owen Roizman used to put Dana on the payroll, without even an assigned duty or job title, just to have him on the crew and standing nearby. “I just want you on the set,” Roizman would explain.

Dana Fuller had toured the Soviet Union with Gypsy Rose Lee as sort of a one-man film crew, with the strap of the Nagra recorder around his neck, handholding the camera. He was a railroad enthusiast. He could weld freehand and was a very accurate rifle shot. He rode motocross. He was a good skier and made films for ski resorts. At one time, Dana was in the Guinness Book of World’s Records for breaking the land speed record in a diesel truck. He was a skilled photographer who would listen to the fire and police calls on ham radio, showing up uninvited at the crime scene and filming the incident with his own cameras.

Dana loved to teach and was a surprisingly good teacher. He knew how to draw or explain whatever he needed to communicate. Ken Phelps told me that he admired Dana Fuller, whom he called a “misguided genius,” but that Dana Fuller had “zero social talent or skills.” Dana liked women but was too socially inept and consequently never married or had children.

“Dana Fuller was a genius,” Dick Dova concurred. “He was a strange man, and he had a strange way of talking. He definitely wasn’t slick – he simply had problems communicating.”

Early in his career, first camera assistant Joe Ward worked on a job with Dana Fuller. The metal barn doors Joe was carrying in his hand accidentally slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor. Dana went into an abusive tirade, chastising Joe and telling him that the barn doors cost “more to replace than you make all year!” It is worth pointing out that barn doors are sturdily constructed of solid metal parts and can easily withstand being dropped on the floor without damage.

When cinematographers hired Dana Fuller as their gaffer, Dana hired Jon Fontana as his best boy.

When I asked Jon Fontana why he was working as a gaffer instead as a cameraman, he told me, with surprising self-awareness and candor, that he had learned that he wasn’t good at politics or electronics, and he felt that he had no mechanical ability – all impediments to a career as a cinematographer.

So, to make a living in the San Francisco film community – to pay the bills and raise his children – Jon remained in the grip and electrical department, continuing to work as Dana’s best boy.

On one shoot, Jon was driving Dana’s grip truck, and he did something untoward that resulted in the truck needing major engine repairs.

“I fucked up Dana’s truck,” he told me. “And Dana didn’t hire me for six months.” It was a hard time. Jon had to take a straight job hanging sheet rock to make ends meet. Months went by and Dana Fuller never phoned.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Fontana, Dana had taken an old garbage truck, painted it white, and built Jon a grip truck. He surprised Jon by presenting it to him, telling him, “Don’t ever touch one of my trucks again.” Jon paid Dana back for the grip truck, slowly, one job at a time.

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J. L. Fisher 10 camera dolly

Somehow, Dana had managed to secure the J. L. Fisher camera dolly franchise in the bay area. Fisher’s camera dollies were state-of-the-art – the very best in the business. As a young production assistant in Los Angeles, forty years ago, I had the privilege of having old J. L. Fisher himself – a tall, severe, elderly man with long, flowing white hair that gave him the countenance of a classical conductor – instruct me in the many functions of his greatest invention, the indispensable Fisher 10 camera dolly.

Fisher’s dolly was so essential to the filmmaking process, that later, as a producer, the first thing I did before bidding on a tv commercial, was to reserve a Fisher dolly for the shoot, as you simply couldn’t work without one.

If you wanted to use a Fisher dolly in Northern California, you had to deal with Dana. Dana was such a peculiar and mercurial personality – a real pain the ass – that this was a genuine incentive for bringing your own dolly from Los Angeles. When Dana died, J. L. Fisher’s son made a concerted effort to recover the Fisher dolly parts languishing in Dana’s garage.

“Dana Fuller was the most brilliant man I ever met,” Jon Fontana once told me. “He would watch you as you were dying, without saying a word. And then, after you were dead, he’d say ‘Well, I could have told you that would happen because you didn’t do what I said.’ ”

I was incredulous. I had to worked with Dana near the end of his career when he had the local monopoly on water trucks and gear for making rain on film shoots. Actual rain doesn’t show up on film. You have to create an unusually heavy artificial downpour and it must be backlit, or the audience won’t see it – watch Singin in the Rain (1952) for an excellent demonstration.

When you hired a water truck, the driver usually arrives on set with his tank full of 4,000 gallons of water – that’s the point of hiring a water truck. But not Dana Fuller. He’d show up with an empty water truck and make the entire crew wait and watch for half an hour – on the clock – while he filled the tank from a fire hydrant on a nearby street corner.

It was standard procedure, when one rented large pieces of equipment or vehicles, you’d have your insurance company send the owner a certificate of insurance on which they’d be named as “additional insured.” Through some snafu, the production company hadn’t yet received the certificate of insurance naming Dana as “additional insured” – and he walked off the set and went home.

I remember Dana as being the most deliberately difficult person in the world to work with. He seemed to delight in pissing people off – especially the suckers like me, who hired him. It was hard to believe that Dana Fuller was the most brilliant man Jon Fontana had ever met. Human beings are full of contradictions. In truth, just having Dana on the set gave me ulcers.

“Dana Fuller was an even bigger pain in the ass to work with – even worse than Bill Maley,” one crew member confessed.

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Director John Frankenheimer

Jon Fontana was not one of the San Francisco Opera House alumni, nor was he a member of local 16. Jon was strictly non-union and very independent. I hired Jon Fontana as a gaffer on dozens of television commercials. He was punctual, professional, polite, and on-the-ball. He never once mentioned his years making X-rated films. I had heard rumors that he had shot Behind the Green Door, but practically every crewperson in San Francisco in Jon’s generation had worked on pornographic films, and it was impolitic to ask questions about such things.

But Jon Fontana’s handheld cinematography in Behind the Green Door was so innovative and distinctive, one evening, out-of-the-blue, he received an unexpected phone call from John Frankenheimer, the celebrated film director of dozens of feature films, including, The Bird Man of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Grand Prix (1966). Frankenheimer spoke to Fontana for more than an hour about the novel handheld techniques Jon used in Behind the Green Door.

Jon Fontana had been Jon Guterres’ hero since they were students at Antioch High School. Guterres told me a story about a tv commercial he worked on with Jon Fontana, for Peter Cooper of the ad agency Cooper, Dennis, Hirsh. On that shoot, Jon Fontana drove the grip truck. When the advertising agency people found out the grip truck driver was the guy who’d shot and edited Behind the Green Door, all attention was on Jon Fontana, and he was asked to retell every story. And he’s a great storyteller.

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Jon Fontana could be very wise. “All divorces are for the better,” he once told me.

He was divorced, with a son and daughter from his marriage. He was a great parent and often brought his children, Primo and Kate, to hang out on the set when we were filming.

“You know why my kids like you, Adam?” he explained to me while were shooting in Noe Valley one sunny afternoon. “It’s not cause you’re nice to them, or because you’re smart. They like you because you’re a character. They like characters.”

In the days when I worked with Fontana, his “best boy” was his then girlfriend, the lovely and hard-working Catherine D’Ambrosio – the only woman in the grip and electrical department in the San Francisco Bay Area, at that time. The grip and electric departments are almost always a testosterone-heavy Boy’s Blub, and Catherine’s presence effectively diffused that chemistry.

I hired Jon Fontana as the gaffer on a series of Sizzler Steakhouse tv commercials, in 1992. His lighting was perfect. The footage was so good, I still see portions of the steak flips and fried shrimps tosses we shot three decades ago, used in contemporary Sizzler commercials.

One day when we were shooting a Sizzler spot at the Colossal soundstage on 24th Street, Catherine spoke to me of her aspirations for Jon’s young children. Glancing down at the heavy sandbags in her hands, she said, “I just hope they learn from watching us work, to choose careers that don’t involve so much lifting.”

Today, Jon’s son Primo performs a very different kind of heavy lifting – he’s a partner in the Boston office of the huge international law firm DLA Piper.

Categories: I Am the Light, He is the Shadow.