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Original Interviews

JEHFC Interview with Sven Walnum, Cover Up camera operator, circa 1998

SIX FEET AWAY
 
Retired camera operator Sven Walnum has found himself
in some pretty unusual situations over the course of
his lifetime.  The 80-year-old Norwegian immigrant
recounted a few of his more monumental experiences for
us during a recent phone interview from his Santa
Barbara home. 
 
He reminisced about how in 1960 he
traveled with John F. Kennedy's offical press party
during Kennedy's campaign for president, covering his
major policy statements on 16mm film. 
 
In 1968, he noted, he and his wife were at the Ambassador
 Hotel when Robert Kennedy was shot.  His career as a camera
operator, spanning three decades, has included such
classics as "Cinderella Liberty" and "Deliverance".
He's worked side-by-side with the likes of Burt
Reynolds, Bette Davis and Steven Spielberg.  Yet for
Hexum fans, perhaps his most intriguing bout with fate
happened in 1984.  Mr. Walnum explained:
 
 
SW: In September/October 1984, I was the camera
operator on "Cover Up".  At that time I had been
working on a freelance basis for several different
directors of photography (or "DP's" for short - ed.),
so when Roland "Ozzie" Smith was hired for "Cover Up"
as DP, he chose me as his operator.  I worked on the
show up to and including the day that Jon-Erik
accidentally killed himself.
 
JEHFC: Where were you exactly when the accident
happened?
 
SW: When the gun went off, I was about six feet away
from Jon-Erik, who was sitting on the bed preparing a
gun that he was going to use in an exterior scene that
we had already shot. 
 
I personally did not see him put the gun to his head, since
I was involved with the dolly grip, having the camera moved
over just a few feet for a different angle for a close-up shot of
what he had already done in a master shot. 
 
As far as I can recall, he was supposed to prepare
the gun with blanks because he was going to perform
a fake killing to prove to the organization he was trying
to infiltrate, that he was for real.
 
JEHFC: Some articles said that the accident occurred
immediately after the filming of the scene, while
other maintained that he'd actually fallen asleep for
nearly an hour while the handgun lay next to him,
uncollected by the prop man, on the nightstand.  How
long was the handgun actually in Jon-Erik's
possession, and why didn't the prop man collect it
right away?
 
SW: The normal procedure when there are weapons being
used in a scene is for the prop man to take the weapon
away between set-ups.  Everybody involved must assume
that the actor or actresses are hired for their
expertise in acting and that they don't necessarily
know anything about the weapons they are asked to
handle.  Therefore, it behooves the prop men to
instruct the actors on how to handle the weapons, and
to be especially alert for any possible mistakes the
actor may make.  Taking the weapon away from the actor
when not used in the scene is a must.  For those
reasons, the master/wide shots with the main action
are most often done with stunt doubles (thought not in
this case -- ed.), who are all very well trained in
handling weapons, and only tight close-ups are done
with the real actors.  This scene, of course, was a
very static shot of Jon-Erik sitting on a bed in a
motel room and no particular action was involved.
 
My personal opinion about why the prop man didn't take
the gun away from Jon-Erik was because there was only
going to be a very short time lapse between the master
shot and the close-up, since ther were no other actors
involved in the close-ups, and Jon-Erik was just
sitting on the bed and not moving around in the room.

Having observed how Jon-Erik really liked to play
around and have fun, I can very well imagine that he
himself may have asked the prop man to let him keep it
for just the short time between set-ups.  That, of
course, is just my own conjecture, and I have no proof
to back that up.  I am quite sure that we were only
talking about 10 to 15 minutes' waiting time.
 
To some extent, I feel that it was negligent on the
part of the prop man not to take the gun away from
Jon-Erik, but considering the short time between
set-ups, it certainly could be understandable that he
let it pass.  I do hope, however, that from that day
on, no prop man under any circumstances allows the
actor to keep the gun.
 
JEHFC: Were you ever interviewed by anyone -- the
police, the media, or maybe the Screen Actors Guild
committee that investigated the accident?
 
SW: No, I was never questioned by anyone! I just went
home and was informed some time later that Ozzie Smith
was no longer the DP and that the new DP had his own
camera operator that he wanted.
 
JEHFC: There have been some discrepancies about how
many people were present when the accident happened.
Some reports said there were several eyewitnesses,
while others maintained tht Jon-Erik was working alone
at the time, leading some to raise allegations about
studio secrecy in the matter.  Do you recall who else
was there at the time?
 
SW: I couldn't tell you for sure how many people were
present when the gun went off, but I know for sure
that I was there, together with the assistant camera
man, David Marta, and the dolly grip, who was busy
moving for the close-up of the master shot that we had
just finished.  In addition, there must have been the
normal amount of people who would be involved in
preparing for the close-up.  Most likely, the script
supervisor, make-up, assistant director, some
electricians to put the final touches on the lighting,
and the prop man.  These are the people most likely to
be there...
 
JEHFC: So there was no cover up on "Cover Up" -- no
one told you not to talk to the media?
 
SW: No.  I do not recall anybody ever asking me not to
talk to the media or any other authorities about what
had happened, and nobody told me that they had been
urged not to say anything.  Since I was never
contacted by anybody about what happened, that of
course doesn't mean that others were not contacted,
either.
 
JEHFC: One article I read about the shooting stated
that there'd been some discussion on the set earlier
that day of the movie, "The Deerhunter".  Jon-Erik had
reportedly been saying that was the kind of work he
would eventually like to do, and when he put the gun
to his head, and said, "Let's see if this one is for
me," he was mimicking the Russian roulette scenes
which were used in abundance in that film.  It was
just intended to be a sight gag, for the benefit of
those who were familiar with that film.  Do you recall
any of this conversation?
 
SW: I didn't actually hear him say something like
"Let's see if this one if for me," but I remember
distinctly that it was later related to me that that
or something similar was what he said just prior to
pulling the trigger.  What you say about there having
been some discussion about the film "The Deerhunter"
certainly makes quite a lot of sense, considering what
happened.  Add that to what I am sure was his belief
that the gun was loaded with "blanks," which of course
most people not familiar with the technical language
of props would assume were perfectly safe...
 
JEHFC:  What do you remember happening immediately
after the gun went off?
 
SW: When the gun went off, I quickly turned around and
saw him flat on the bed out cold and with blood
streaming out of his head.  There were a lot of "Oh my
God's" "Oh, no's," and instant confusion.  Somebody, I
don't remember who, seemed to be quite calm and
commandeered a few guys and, as well as I can
recollect, got hold of a prop door or something like
that, and they put him carefully on that and carried
him outside and put him in a studio station wagon.  It
was decided that the best thing was to take him
immediately to the nearest hospital and not to wait
for an ambulance, which I very much agreed with.  Time
was certainly of the essence at that moment, since
nobody on the set was able to assess what the damage
was.  Very shortly after the station wagon left, the
assistant director called a wrap, and everybody
prepared to leave, after sharing with each other their
individual impressions of what had happened.
 
JEHFC: Thank you very much for talking with us! You've
certainly cleared up a lot of the mystery concerning
the accident.  In parting, do you have any particular
memories of Jon-Erik you would like to share?
 
SW: Jon-Erik was very strong and athletic.  I remember
well one day, while we were working outside on the
lot, watching him stand next to a car.  He put his
hands on the roof of the car and pulled himself up to
handstand on top of it.  I was very impressed.  My
personal impression of him was that he reminded me a
lot of Steven Spielberg, a grown-up kid who loved to
just play games and have fun.  The old saying: "The
difference between men and boys is the size and price
of their toys" fits them both very well.


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