Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 44

                                Just another day at the office for Loren James...

What, you thought I was finished with the occasional "Just for the Hell of It" post?  Think again, my little Droogies... and on that note, I've come to a decision about this blog. Rather than post whenever I feel like it, my current plan is to aim at putting up a post on the first Sunday of each month. My hope is this will provide a little artificial gravity to keep me from drifting off into space, while giving me plenty of slack to work on the book. 

Will it work? Who knows -- I guess we'll find out in the months to come...

Stuntmen have been in the news lately, and not in a good way. While the popular archetype of a stuntman is someone like Hal Needham, who forged an astonishing, ground-breaking career in Hollywood (and was more than happy to tell the world all about it), most stunt-people do their work quietly, under the radar -- and they're very good at the craft.

Guys like Loren James.

I never worked with the man, but saw a lot of his work on the silver screen, and if you read this obituary the LA Times ran for James, you might realize you've seen him too. It's a good one, and so was he -- but at least he got to die of old age. 

John Bernecker, a young stuntman working on The Walking Dead, wasn't so lucky.  He died a couple of weeks ago when a stunt he attempted -- a 22 foot fall to a concrete floor -- went all wrong. Having witnessed a similar tragedy nearly forty years ago, I feel for Bernecker, his family, and the crew who were on set that day. This is much worse for his family, of course, who will never be the same... but neither will the crew members who saw the accident. I can testify from my own experience: you don't forget something like that. The images and impact of that awful day will haunt those people for the rest of their lives. 

Loren James and John Bernecker, rest in peace.


Being unable to imagine how a show about zombies could possibly be worth watching, I ignored the first season of The Walking Dead, but a review of Season Two by Tim Goodman (once the TV critic of my hometown paper, now writing for The Hollywood Reporter) convinced me to take a look... and I was hooked. I stayed with it, year after year, until the first episode of last season, when the blood-and-guts mayhem escalated to a level I was unwilling to endure. I'm not usually squeamish about such things, but the scene in question killed off two of the main characters in a graphic, horrendously  brutal manner -- their heads smashed to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. 

For reasons I won't discuss here, that scene hit way too close to home, so I had to leave Walking Dead, and haven't looked back.  

That doesn't mean it's a bad show, though -- I think it's very well done -- but I just can't watch it anymore. Still, having spent much of my career working on crap movies, crap commericials, and crap television shows, I've always wondered what it would be like to work on a really good, monster-hit of a show. Now that I'm retired, I'll never know, but judging by the recently released batch of eye-opening e-mails from Season One showrunner Frank Darabont, it wasn't so much fun after all. Most industry veterans have worked for a screamer or two, and there's no denying that running a big show is a high-stress meat grinder that can bring out the worst in anyone, but as evidenced by those e-mails, Darabont set the bar for bad behavior very high indeed.    

None of this was made public back when he got fired from Walking Dead after Season One, of course -- a move that seemed to make no sense at the time.  But having read some of those e-mails... yeah, I get it now.  


Martin Landau has now joined the parade of cinematic luminaries to slip into eternity.  My first memories of him were in the original television version of Mission Impossible, which caught America's attention in a big way during the late 60's, and his role as an evil henchman in Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest -- but I was more impressed by his portrayal of Judah Rosenthal, an ophthamolgist who makes a series of morally questionable decisions that add up to big trouble in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Along the way, Landau makes us understand the characters self-inflicted troubles in a very human way, and if we don't necessarily root for him to succeed, it's hard not to sympathize with his dilemma, which puts us on very queasy moral ground. Landau received an Oscar nomination for his performance in this terrifc movie, which you really should see. True, there's no car chases, machine-gun fire, massive explosions, or CGI-laden demonstrations of super-powers -- it's just a very smart, superbly written, acted and directed drama that draws you in and won't let go.  

If that's not enough, then I really don't know what else to tell you.

I worked on one feature film with Martin Landau -- an entirely forgettable piece of low-budget cinematic flotsam called The Return, which had several familiar names on the daily call sheets. With Raymond Burr, Cybyl Shephard, Jan Michael Vincent, Martin Landau, and Neville Brand, this multi-generational cast delivered the goods in each their own way, which made it fun to work on, at least -- and that's not always the case on a low-budget feature. Like the rest of the cast, Martin Landau was suffering through a bad patch in his career at the time, which is doubtless the only reason he took the gig, but he (and they) did a thoroughly professional job in bringing a touch of class to a genre that's typically lacking anything of the sort. 

Here's a good interview with Landau from 1990 in which he describes how he got started in acting, and discusses his role in Crimes and Misdemeanors, among other things.  It's less than twenty minutes, and well worth the time.


On a lighter note... in another of his weekly Martini Shot commentaries, veteran writer, producer, and sometime director Rob Long brings his many years of experience and very dry wit to bear on the subject of reshoots. At only three minutes or so, you can't go wrong.

And last but not least, the Quote of the Month from Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, on the latest iteration of the Transformers franchise.

"Transformers" is as bad as it gets -- a work of consumate cynicism, too soulless to be called garbage, because garbage usually starts out as something good or is the end product of separating good from bad. With "Transformers," there was nothing good to start with, just greed floating in a dead world."

Well put, Mick.

That's it for now...


Anonymous said...

Good to hear from you!

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

It seems that my sign-off post a while back caused readers to assume I was shutting the blog down, which was never my intent... but "I'll post when I feel like it" gave that impression. Although I'm no longer active in the business -- and am a long way from Hollywood these days -- I keep one eye on the industry, and still have a few things to say. As this post stated, my plan is to post once a month now (unless something comes up that just can't wait) on the first Sunday of each month.

Thanks for tuning in!

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