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, December 4, 2022

December



While discussing his most recent film in an interview on NPR, Steven Spielberg admitted that the first movie he saw in a theater terrified him to the point that he shrank down into the seat trying to block the screen from view, begging his parents to take him home. They didn't, of course, and after a while he started watching again -- and it seems that's when die was cast that would drive him on a journey to the top of the heap in Hollywood.

What movie, you might wonder, could have frightened, entranced, and inspired the young Spielberg?  

Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth -- and no, I didn't see that coming either, which makes me wonder what films little Steven might have made as an adult had his cinematic baptism come via another circus film, Todd Browning's Freaks.  Viewing a scene like this might be enough to doom any six year old to life in therapy.  That said, the movie-going experience in one's early years is different for everyone, and Spielberg's youthful trauma at the hands of CB DeMille paid off for him, Hollywood, and the rest of us in the form of so many great movies. 

From that interview:   

Steven Spielberg still remembers the first time he went to the movies. His parents took him to see The Greatest Show on Earth Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 drama set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but there was a misunderstanding.

"I had never been to a motion picture," Spielberg recalls. "And ... I actually thought they were saying to me, 'We're taking you to a circus.' "

Settling into his seat in the theater, Spielberg felt betrayed. Where was the big tent? Where were the circus animals he had been expecting? But then the red curtain opened and the film began and it didn't take him long to fall under become enchanted.

"I didn't understand the story, didn't understand what they were saying, but the imagery was amazing," he says. 

The first movie I recall seeing in my local theater was a matinee of one of the many Lassie epics, followed -- if memory serves me well -- by "Bambi," "Old Yeller," and "The Yearling."  I don't recall much about the Lassie flick, but the others taught me one of life's great lessons: anything you fall in love with is doomed to be killed by a heartlessly cruel world -- and worse, you just might have to be the one who pulls the trigger for the greater good of your family.

Gee, thanks Hollywood.  So it seems Spielberg and I have at least one thing in common -- a heavy dose of early-childhood cinematic trauma -- but while he surfed that wave of existential anxiety with enough skill to become one of the most successful directors in the history of cinema, I became ... a juicer.  

Ah well, we each walk our own path, and so it goes.*

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Many years ago -- very late 70s or very early 80s -- I got a call to work a freebie shoot down in Long Beach.  With nothing else going on at the time, I said yes, but the caller (I can't recall who it was) wanted me to be the gaffer, and in no way was I ready for that. 

"I'll best boy anything," I told him, "but I'm not a gaffer."

I wasn't much of a best boy either, truth be told, but given that I wouldn't be paid a dime, I was ready to fake my way through it.  I recommended a slightly more experienced friend for the gaffer slot, and so we arrived on location bright and early the following Saturday morning, an abandoned building overlooking the harbor in San Pedro. There, with our crew of two neophyte juicers, we lugged three 10Ks, two 5Ks, several 2Ks, and way too much 4/0 cable up seven flights of stairs to the set because  -- of course -- the elevator was out of order. This, along with a DP fond of declaring "I paint with light,"   was a harbinger of how the next two days would go.  It was memorable shoot for many reasons, not many of them good, during which we all busted our collective asses ... but I learned a lot.

I flashed back to this while reading about the life, career, and death of Clu Gulager, an actor whose name might not mean much to the current generation in Hollywood, but who loomed large in my cinematic world. Clu was in lot of TV back in the day, then played a small but memorable role in The Last Picture Show, a film that was a very big deal to my generation.  The connection here is that our two day shoot in San Pedro was part of a film called John and Norma Novak, a short film Clu financed, directed, and starred in, along with much of his family.*

                           Clu Gulager as "Abeline" in The Last Picture Show

Nearly ten years later, more or less a real best boy now, I flew down to North Carolina to do a feature called Summer Heat starring Lori Singer and the young Anthony Edwards, fresh off his star-making role as the doomed "Goose" in Top Gun -- and lo and behold, there in the cast was Clu Gulager for a few days of filming.  He even remembered me, or pretended to, with a nod, a smile, and "You're a good man" as he shook my hand.  It was a small moment, but small moments tend to loom large as the years pile on.  

I never saw Clu again in person, only up on the silver screen, and was pleasantly surprised to see his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, an aging thespian once again answering the call and delivering the goods.  Father Time has picked off too many cinematic icons of my youth the past few years, and Clu was the latest.  So thanks for the memories, Clu Gulager, and may you rest in peace.

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Last, in what passes for tradition here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, the great Robert Earl Keene's rendition of his yuletide classic, "Christmas with the Family."

But wait, there's more! As a special Christmas treat, here's a short but revealing clip featuring the one, the only, the unforgettable Leslie Nielson.  When he passed (ahem...) we lost a good one.

To each and every one of you, I wish a wonderful holiday season.


* Clu directed a number of indy projects, one of one of which -- a 30 minute short described as "a violent rock opera that stars Clu’s younger son Tom" -- was John and Norma Novak.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Dennis Woodruff, Actor

 

All photos, except as noted, by Harrod Bank, with the permission of Art Car World


Back in the early 80's, my crew landed a three week gig in early January lighting a series of toy commercials. The job paid full commercial rate for fifteen days, and since the toys and sets were tiny, we wouldn't have to light up the world -- which means there would be no heavy lifting, making this a fat, lucrative start to the new year.

That was the good news -- the bad news was that we then had to spend three long weeks in a dark sound stage at Raleigh Studios doing what amounted to table-top lighting, a meticulous, time consuming task that some people love ... but I am not among them. Truth be told, I hated  table top work, which was fun for about half an hour, then rapidly morphed into a soul-crushingly tedious chore. Still, a job is a job is a job, and nobody says you have to like the gig to appreciate the paycheck.   

The head agency man -- responsible for delivering what the client wanted -- was named "Ralphie," a diminutive, rotund, bearded garden-gnome with a voice that seemed to float atop a wobbly bubble of phlegm, and day after day, Ralphie had a lot say about each and every shot. As we entered the second week of this special little Hell, I was starting to go a little bit insane, which made our daily hour-long lunch break an oasis to be yearned for all morning long, then dearly missed each afternoon once we were back at work.

Among our favorite lunch spots were Lucy's El Adobe, Nickodells, and Orzas, a small Eastern European restaurant next door to Paramount -- a friendly little cafe with good food at reasonable prices. On our way there one day, we noticed posters stapled to every telephone pole along that stretch of Melrose, each featuring a black and white Xerox image of a 30-something man in a black leather jacket striking a dramatic pose aboard a large motorcycle, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. In big bold print below the photo was the phrase  "Dennis Woodruff, Actor."

Self-promotion is nothing new in Hollywood, but the earnest, low-rent approach of these posters was intriguing. It's one thing for Angelyne to attract eyeballs with posters and billboards of her scantily-clad and undeniably impressive pneumatic charms, but something else for a guy to sell himself as "Dennis Woodruff, Actor."

As we took a table in Orzas cramped dining room one day, the gaffer turned, and in his typically dry tone of voice said:  "Look: it's Dennis Woodruff, actor."

Sure enough, there was the man himself at a table on the far side of the room reading a paperback while sipping a small cup of very strong Turkish coffee -- a specialty of Orzas. He appeared to have come straight from the wardrobe department of a spaghetti western: black boots, black pants, black shirt, black leather vest, and a black straight-brimmed hat. The image in those posters had come to life, and he sure as hell looked like an actor.

A woman at the table next to us leaned over and rolled her eyes. 

"I work at Paramount," she said, shaking her head. "He calls us Every. Single. Day..."

A few minutes later, Dennis Woodruff, actor, finished his coffee, paid the check, then stood up and walked out.

I didn't seem him again for a few years, and forgot all about Dennis Woodruff until he began driving the streets of Hollywood and the surrounding cities in a series of outlandishly modified cars, each advertising his thespian skills to a film industry that continued to ignore him. But if Hollywood looked the other way, the rest of us couldn't help noticing those astonishing cars, and his underground fame began to build.  












Nobody gets ahead in Hollywood waiting to be discovered, though, so this tireless self-promoter began making and selling his own movies, and you have to give him credit: the man has made a lot of movies.* I'd occasionally see him popping into laundromats or walking the streets of Hollywood selling VHS tapes of his work for $10 each to anybody who'd listen to his spiel. He did pretty well at it, too, raking in upwards of 250,000 British pounds by 2011 according to the Daily Mail, which would be over $400K in US dollars at the time. That figure sounds a bit suspicious, but apparently he made enough selling his movies to buy a bungalow in Hollywood, and those don't come cheap, so I suppose only Dennis and the IRS knows for sure.  

Then one slow Sunday after another long week working on my show, I was washing a load of dirty clothes when who should walk into the Laundromat but -- drumroll, please ... Dennis Woodruff, actor -- only this time he arrived with a camera rather than in a fully pimped-out car. He had me in this viewfinder before I knew it, asking a series of probing questions, and like any good director, prompted me as to how to respond.  

Any of you who've been reading the stories here for a while will recall, I am neither an actor nor remotely comfortable on camera -- there's a good reason I chose a career behind the lights rather than out in front feeling their heat -- so I wasn't particularly thrilled to be put on the spot like this on my day of rest, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow and have a sense of humor about things. And truth be told, Dennis Woodruff was a calm, gentle director who knew what he wanted, but was willing to roll with whatever happened without insisting on having his way.  I was merely one of many people Dennis corralled into appearing in Horror Stories from the Laundromat, so if you're curious and have thirty minutes to spare, you can take a look and figure which one is me. 




It seems the ambition to star in bigger films made and financed by someone else continues to burn within, so I have to applaud Dennis Woodruff, who's kept chasing his dream no matter what Hollywood thinks of him. He's been at it for a long time, but hasn't gotten discouraged yet -- and so with true respect, I doff my cap and wish him all the best. 

And hey, even if Dennis hasn't yet made it big, at least one of his cars did!


                       One of Woodruff's cars featured in the 1997 movie Volcano
                    (Source unknown)

Have yourselves a great Thanksgiving.


* Twenty-nine, as of 2020.


PS: If you'd like to see more outrageously creative, fantastic automotive art -- many that go far beyond what Dennis Woodruff has done -- click on over to Art Car World.  There are some terrific photos there, along with books and DVDs that explore the work of creative people who use cars as a canvas upon which to create art. Check it out!

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Fall

 

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...


Summer is officially over, and with it the beach season for many coastal areas around the country, but the arrival of Fall marks the beginning of shark season here. Large colonies of massive elephant seals have gathered along the rocky islands and sandy beaches of Northern California to birth and raise their young, and right behind them came the big Great Whites following their main source of food, which makes entering the ocean a somewhat dodgy endeavor this time of year.

This, of course, brings me to Jaws, and a new 3-D version version of the epic film that put Steven Spielberg on the map of Hollywood, and it sounds pretty great.  Apparently this is a newer 3-D process vasty superior to previous attempts at adding a third dimension to the movie-going experience ... but sadly for me, I'm nowhere near a theater that can properly run a film like this.  Some of you may live closer to such a theater, so as the saying goes, check your local listings. 

Meanwhile, here's a nice little clip from the original 2D Jaws, wherein in Chief Brody and Matt Hooper try to convince the reluctant mayor of Amityville to close the beaches for the upcoming holiday weekend. It's a classic reenactment of the eternal safety vs. commerce argument that still resonates fifty years after Jaws first hit the silver screen.  For more about the film, here's a fascinating documentary on The Making of Jaws, which -- like Final Cut and The Church of Baseball -- demonstrates just how difficult it is to reach the point where cameras and actors are finally on set and ready to roll. Those of us who've worked below-the-line know all too well the challenge of making a movie once the actors have been cast, the financing secured, and the crew assembled, but the drama that often precedes all that is no less compelling. After watching this documentary, I'm once again amazed that any movie  -- good or bad -- ever makes it to the screen in Hollywood. 

A short film that tells a very real story of experiences with Great Whites is here at Near Miss, but the title is a bit misleading -- although it features some riveting underwater footage of those big sharks, there is no actual "near miss" in this eleven minute film. After it was shot and being edited, Ron Elliot -- the diver profiled in the film -- did suffer an extremely near miss when a seventeen foot Great White attacked just after he entered the water with his camera. The shark ate the camera and did serious damage to one of his hands, which has required six surgeries thus far to restore a degree of functionality. Ron is a friend, and showed me photos from a GoPro attached to his hookah air hose that automatically several stills during the attack, and they're absolutely horrifying. That shark was a monster, and Ron is very lucky to be alive. 

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A post recently appeared on the FB group Crew Stories:

"Serious question -- why do you do it?  What keeps you in the industry?  I see a never ending chain of complaints on this page, and that's fine. Everyone complains about their job. This is not meant to be disrespectful or even accusational.  I would genuinely like to hear why you do it."

This entirely reasonable question triggered a massive response. The litany of complaints posted on Crew Stories are as familiar as they are valid: the long hours on set wreak havoc on relationships and any semblance of a personal or social life, the sporadic income stream of working free-lance makes planning -- or taking -- any vacation an exercise in terminal frustration, and the bloated "Don't you know who I think I am?" egos of certain directors, producers, actors, and/or department-heads can make a hard job all the more difficult. Bitching about all this seems to come easier than gushing about the good times on set, and  helps vent the collective spleen of we who toil (past-tense, in my case) below-the-line, but I can certainly understand how a non-industry reader of Crew Stories might wonder why the hell anybody puts up with such a ruthlessly topsy-turvy life.

Those who come to the industry (rather than being born into the biz) are drawn to Hollywood for many reasons. Some fell in love with movies and decided they wanted to be involved in the process, others are refugees from soul-crushing jobs they simply couldn't stand anymore, while more than a few joined the industry because film and television is one of the few remaining career options in America that pays reasonably well (while you're working, anyway) without requiring an expensive college degree.  Whatever the reasons, the first few years are undeniably exciting as you learn the ropes and claw your way up the ladder to something resembling financial solvency, but the thrill can fade after while as you learn that the industry isn't quite what you thought it would be.  Some degree of disillusionment is not unusual -- I went through a couple of rough periods when I wasn't sure if I was done with Hollywood or if Hollywood was done with me, and I gave serious thought to getting out and doing something else in life ... but what was the alternative?  I'd spent many years writing a book that received a polite sniff from couple of agents and a publisher, all of whom wished me luck as they waved goodbye, so writing for money didn't appear to be a realistic career alternative.  Going back into the food biz held no appeal whatsoever, and even less chance at a stable life or sustainable income ... but more than anything, I wasn't interested in any other line of work.  

Pondering all this, I recalled a day back when I was fresh out of college and wearing a red and white striped shirt behind the counter of the local Straw Hat Pizza Parlor.*  There I stood late one very slow morning when I noticed a hitchhiker out on the freeway onramp having no luck at all as car after car passed him by. He was clean-cut -- maybe a bit too clean-cut in a hippie town like Santa Cruz back in the early 70s -- with very short hair and brand new K Mart civilian clothes that marked him as fresh out of the military. After wasting an hour out there he gave up and carried his suitcase into the Straw Hat, where I made him a small pizza and poured him a beer. As he ate, he talked about landing in San Francisco the night before after spending a year in Vietnam, where he'd served a full tour of duty in the infantry. 

"I was on a pay phone when some asshole grabbed one of my suitcases and took off," he said, shaking his head in disgust.  "I started after him, but tripped on something, and by the time I got up he was gone."

I tried to commiserate, although nothing I'd experienced in life compared with he'd been through: a full year of combat patrols in the jungles of Southeast Asia, then getting ripped off shortly after arriving back in the U.S.  That rude welcome-home - and subsequent lack of success hitch-hiking - had him wondering out loud if he should forget about civilian life and re-up for another tour in the army.  I did my best to talk him out that, refilling his beer glass several times as he talked, and after a while he told me a story.**

"One day I had to lead a patrol of green kids fresh out of basic  - they didn't know shit - and my job was to keep 'em alive until they learned to fight and survive in the jungle.  A few hours out we were deep in VC country, and they started gettin' antsy.  One of 'em finally worked up the nerve to ask if maybe we should head back to the base the way we'd come."

"We can't go back," I told him. "They're behind us now."

He drained the last of his beer and thanked me, then picked up his suitcase. I wished him luck as he headed back out to the freeway onramp.  The lunch rush was staring to build, and I got busy taking orders and making pizzas. The next time I looked the window, he was gone, finally having caught a ride. It's been nearly fifty years since then, but I remember it like yesterday, and have always wondered what happened to that guy: did he go back to the army -- and if so, did he survive -- or did he manage to find his way in civilian life?  I hope it was the latter, but will never know.

The story he'd told me had no dramatic ending -- there was no ambush, bloody fire-fight, or calling in an air-strike -- but the lesson I took was that sometimes the only way to fight through the doubt and fear that creep in during times of uncertainty is to press forward, especially when you're so far in that going back is likely to cost more than forging ahead. After a certain point you keep going simply because this, whatever it may be, is what you do

I stumbled into that first deep pool of quicksand three years into my Hollywood adventure, and the second nearly thirty years later, but each time something came along to drag me back onto dry ground. For whatever reason (and thanks to a little help from my friends) better jobs started coming my way, and life improved. Still, that was me -- your mileage may vary -- so if you find yourself perpetually unhappy working in the film and television industry, then maybe you should look for something else.  As I've said before, this life isn't for everybody, and if it's not for you, there's no shame in leaving ... but if you're just going through a bad stretch, hey, we've all been there. It's part of the deal in Hollywood. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other until things get better. 

Because they probably will.

Enjoy the Fall while you can kiddos, because Winter is coming.


Ahem -- such is the value of a college degree in "Aesthetic Studies."

**The beers were on the house. The owner was a fat Jabba-the Hut slug whose rich mother had bought him the Straw Hat franchise, so I figured he could afford to buy this guy a few beers.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

September

 


"Okay," you might thinking "I guess the Hollywood Juicer has finally lost it -- now he's trying to shove a book about baseball down our throats!"

"Hold your horses," as my sainted mother used to say.  Yes, I've doubtless lost a step or three over the past few years, I do like baseball, and I am shoving a book at you -- but it's a book about the making of a baseball movie, not the game itself.  Ron Shelton played in baseball's minor leagues for several years before becoming a screenwriter (Under Fire), and eventually directing movies like White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup, so you'd expect to have a few relevant baseball stories woven into the narrative, but the meat of the book is the tale of how he took a germ of an idea, then with a Herculean effort managed to turn it into what is widely considered one of the best movies ever made about the game: Bull Durham.  As Shelton reveals, nothing in making this movie came easy, and his inside account of the long and winding odyssey from selling the idea, writing the script, landing the cast, pre-production, directing, post-production, then running the gantlet of test screenings before the movie was finally locked for release is as entertaining as it is informative.  In The Church of Baseball you'll learn something about turning an idea into a script, dealing with a skeptical studio, surviving constant sand-in-the-gears sabotage by an unnamed and decidedly hostile studio executive, how the process of casting works (and sometimes doesn't), how to deal with and direct actors, how to improvise and go with the flow when your on-set spider sense begins to tingle, and how to keep fighting the uphill battle to save your movie from clueless studio drones who apparently have nothing better to do than throw obstacles in your way.

Bull Durham may be set in the world of minor league baseball, but the story is really about people who've arrived at turning points in their lives before which everything was different, and after which nothing will ever be the same.  It's a love story on many levels, and by the time you've turned the last page of Shelton's book, you'll find yourself wondering how any movie ever gets made in or by Hollywood, let alone a film as good as this one.

As it happens, I share a tiny slice of history with Ron Shelton. 

Queue the swirling orchestral music and a rapid montage as calendar pages fly back on the wall, then the camera zooms in to freeze on a date in the late summer of 1978.   

The camera assistant from the very first low budget feature I ever worked on called with an offer I simply couldn't refuse. He'd be shooting a short 16 mm film over a weekend for a wannabe director, so how would I like to help as a grip-trician and possibly second camera operator? It was a freebie, of course, but back then my own Hollywood fantasies had yet to encounter the full gravitational force of reality, and since the script was about a minor league baseball pitcher -- and some of the filming would take place on the field during a minor league game in Bakersfield, California -- it sounded like fun. A few days later, our small crew gathered at a rambling old house up in the hills north of Sunset, where we sat in Ron Shelton's living room as he explained the story and how he proposed to film it over the following weekend.  He showed us slides he'd taken while scouting the ball park in Bakersfield, and assured us that although there was a lot to film, he'd get us through it without pushing too hard.

Ron was as good as his word.  We shot everything on the schedule with our two actors, the young Chris Mulkey -- who'd made a bit of a splash in an indy feature called Loose Ends a couple of years before -- and another actor whose name has long since slipped my mind.  

Hey, it was forty-four years ago, and as writing this post reminded me in ways I didn't expect, my memory is a bit spotty.  More on that later.

Once the final scene was in the can (and yes, I did get to operate the second camera while we shot the scene at the ballpark), Ron treated us all to dinner at what was then the finest dining establishment in Bakersfield, a restaurant with the unlikely name of Lemucchi's Tam O'Shanter, where the food, wine, and laughter flowed before we made the long drive back to LA.  It was a fitting end to a great weekend during which I had a blast ... and that, as far as I can recall, was the last time I saw Ron Shelton. Over the next ten years, I went on to climb the below-the-line ladder as a grip, juicer, best boy, and gaffer, while Ron forged a solid career as a successful writer/director in Hollywood.  

Nearly a decade later, while I was prepping to fly east for an eight week feature in Vermont, my gaffer said something that gave me the impression he'd been offered to gaff a baseball movie that was about to film in North Carolina, directed by Ron Shelton and starring Kevin Costner, but since he'd already committed us to the show in Vermont, had to turn it down.  

"Damn," I thought. I knew Kevin from my days at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, where I'd worked on many a commercial when he was a stage manager there, and although I hadn't seen Ron since that weekend in the Bakersfield -- which I assumed eventually led to Bull Durham -- this could have been a reunion or sorts, the three of us having achieved at least part of our Hollywood dreams ... but it was not to be.  So it goes in Hollywood.  Having told this "what might have been" story about Bull Durham more than once over the ensuing years, I planned to include it here, but it occurred to me to do a little fact-checking first.

So I called my old gaffer -- who'd bumped up to DP a year or two after the Vermont movie -- and caught him on his cell as he was traveling to a distant location to resume shooting an episodic drama for one of the big broadcast networks.  We hadn't touched base for a while, and it was good to catch up, but when I asked the question about Bull Durham, he confessed no memory of being offered the job. I checked the IMDB, and found that the DP was Bob Byrne, who - sadly - had passed away in 2017. With nobody left to ask, I'd struck out, so maybe I'd just go with the flow as represented by the newspaper writer's reply to Jimmy Stewart's character (Ransom Stoddard) in John Ford's elegiac western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence:  

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

I went back to reading The Church of Baseball, which revealed that Bobby Byrne was actually the second DP -- another DP named Chuck Minsky had been hired to shoot Bull Durham, which he did quite well -- but thanks to Machiavellian maneuvering back in Hollywood by that unnamed studio executive, Chuck was "let go" with only three weeks left to shoot, for no good reason --  and Bob Byrne brought in to finish up.*

So back to Google I went to find Chuck Minsky's website, where I sent him an e-mail asking the Big Question: had my gaffer back then really been offered the gaffer job on Bull Durham?  Chuck graciously sent a prompt reply telling me how devastating it had been to be fired, what a great, stand-up guy Ron Shelton really was, and that since the film's low budget didn't allow him to bring his own gaffer, he'd hired a local who'd done a fine job.**  

So the answer was "no," which means that something I've long considered one of my Big Career Regrets -- that but for fate and cruel timing I'd have worked on Bull Durham -- was never real in the first place.  There's doubtless a larger lesson in all this (and maybe someday I'll figure out what that might be...), but although I lost a good story, I've still got the movie, which I re-watch every few years,  and The Church of Baseball, Ron Shelton's wonderfully entertaining and informative book.

If you're interested -- which you should be -- here's a podcast from LA's NPR outlet KCRW called The Treatment, which starts out in a twenty minute discussion with actress Maya Rudolph, then segues to a longer talk with Ron Shelton about his career in Hollywood and the book.  Once that's done, click on over to this five minute piece wherein Ron reveals the influence Sam Peckinpah and his epic western The Wild Bunch had on Shelton's career.  

Both are really good, so check 'em out.


*  This was beyond outrageous.  The more I read about that unnamed studio exec, the bigger an asshole he turns out to be.

** Having been fired a couple of times myself -- both times for arguably good reasons -- I'm not sure there are words sufficient to describe how Chuck must have felt. When you've done a good job under difficult conditions, you're not supposed to be rewarded by being dumped like yesterday's garbage with only three weeks to go ... but that's Hollywood for you.    

Sunday, July 31, 2022

August


                        "August, die she must, the autumn winds blow chilly and cold..."

                              April, Come She Will, Simon and Garfunkel


On the cusp of August, firmly in the sweaty grasp of summer, we're a long way from the chilly autumn winds of which Paul Simon sang -- and here in California, the wildfire season is now swinging into high gear -- but change is coming, for better or worse.

We lost another good one last month. Since I never worked with James Caan, I have no idea what he was like as a person, but his screen persona was undeniably compelling: an intense character driven by internal forces he couldn't always control, who -- like a man walking the streets of a big city carrying a loaded gun -- carried the seeds of his own destruction. Despite (or maybe because of...) so much early success, Caan seemed to have a love/hate relationship with the film industry, and dropped out of circulation for a few years in the 80s until financial necessity dragged him back. As the quote on his Wiki page reveals: 

"I was flat-ass broke ... I didn't want to work. But then when the dogs got hungry and I saw their ribs, I decided that maybe now it's a good idea."

Caan was not alone in having a complicated relationship with Hollywood, but he persevered to forge a memorable career.  He first lit up my radar as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and later in the gritty, stylish Thief, but the movie I'll always associate him with is The Gambler, in which he plays a man who has everything -- a good woman, a good job, intelligence, and respect -- all of which is undermined by his addiction to the adrenaline rush of gambling.  There's a riveting scene where he lies in a tub listening to a basketball game on which he's placed a big bet, which comes down to the final second and a crucial shot, during which the tension and stress his character suffers radiates from the screen like a blazing fire.

James Caan could really bring it.

Here's a nice remembrance from Manohala Dargis of the NY Times.

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Yet another loss came early this week when David Warner passed away. I first noticed him in a small British film called Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, which came to a theater near me in the mid-60s.  Although I really can't recall why I -- still a teenager at the time -- felt compelled to see Morgan, I distinctly remember how hard it was to convince any of my friends to go.  

"This better not be a fucking pirate movie," one of them muttered, as he grudgingly accompanied me.  

Morgan couldn't have been further from a pirate movie, and was unlike any film I'd ever seen. Although a career in the film industry was the furthest thing from my imagination, this movie opened my eyes to new voices telling stories on screen, which I think prepared me to take a chance on a film class a few years -- a class that would set me on a path to Hollywood.*  

Warner went on to inhabit a wide spectrum of memorable roles in movies as disparate as Straw Dogs, The Omen, Time Bandits, The Titanic, Mary Poppins Returns -- even a few Star Trek movies -- and was never less than convincing on screen.  He seldom felt the heat of the Hollywood spotlight, but brought an added dimension of depth to so every movie in which he appeared. Warner was the kind of actor you don't think about much until he's gone, at which point you realize just how much we've lost. A quote on Twitter said it best:  

"David Warner made good movies better, and bad movies tolerable." 

While working on a sitcom nearly twenty years ago, I was delighted to see that David Warner was one of our guest stars on an early episode. I took the opportunity to shake his hand and relate my story of seeing Morgan so long ago -- which he found amusing -- then told him how much I appreciated his wonderful work over the years.  Meeting someone who'd had such an impact on me at an early age was a big deal, and although Warner seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention, he took it with typical good grace, and did his usual fine job in our show.  

That was a good week.

A nice example of his acting chops is in this scene from Time After Time  -- a scene that might resonate even more nowadays, given all that's going on here and abroad.  

Here's a good obit from the Hollywood Reporter.

RIP, David, and thanks for the memories  

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From the No Shit, Sherlock School of the Obvious comes this: not only does working long hours suck, but it's bad for your health and longevity.  This comes as no surprise to any industry veteran. As the gaffer who mentored me (and taught me what it meant to be a pro in this business) once said, "I'm mining my body."  He was right, and died at age forty-five of a heart attack while on his way to scout locations for yet another miserable music video. 

The solution for this is equally obvious -- work shorter hours -- but neither the industry nor a surprising number of below-the-line work-bots are in favor of that.  The latter are hooked on the overtime money earned from working all those fourteen to sixteen hour days, and considering the insane cost of housing in LA and beyond these days, along with steadily rising prices of everything else, this is understandable.  

But the question remains: at what human cost?  

The industry insists on jamming through no matter what, always trying to get each film and TV show done in the least number of days for economic reasons ... but I wonder about that.  Granted, most film equipment is rented -- cameras, lights, cable, generators, grip equipment, sound stages, etc. -- so the fewer days it takes to complete a shoot, the less money is paid on rentals, but the long days these ram-and-jam schedules inevitably rack up big overtime bills for the crew, so where does one begin to outweigh the other in budgetary terms?

I don't know -- but I sure as hell know the human cost of working those long days, week after week, year after year.  The other day I started counted the crew people I used to work with who have, in Shakespeare's terms, "shuffled off this mortal coil" at a relatively young age -- meaning their fifties and early sixties --  but stopped once I'd used up the fingers of both hands.  I'm not talking about people who died in car crashes or other accidents, but who suffered from cancer, heart attacks, and other terminal maladies that took them long before their time.  These were all good, smart, funny, capable people, the kind who made the tedium, frustration, and long hours of this business tolerable, and were a delight to work with ... and now they're gone.  I've no doubt that the physical, mental, and emotional stress of working such long days played a role in that. 

But hey, in Hollywood it's Money that Matters, not people.

Same as it ever was.

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For any of you who tilt at the windmill of the keyboard for fun or (hopeful) profit, this is worth three minutes of your time. Having talent is great, and a good idea always helps, but it's only the start: what really matters is doing the hard work of turning that idea into a story.   

There's no easy way.

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I realize that Facebook is justifiably reviled by many out there, but it's not all bad -- and like many forms of social media, has its uses. If you're in the biz and on Facebook, you really should click on over to a group called "Crew Stories," where you might learn something, but almost certainly will be amused.  Here's an item from a recent series of posts on working with animals:  

"I worked on a commercial for B&B Circus once. In addition to the camera crew being shit on TWICE by an elephant, we witnessed a sixteen foot Burmese Python bite the snake handler in the chest. After that the director yelled "Right! Bring out the tigers!"  I involuntarily and quite audibly said 'Fuck that,' and went outside."

If you're on FB, check it out - you might be glad you did.

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I've posted it before -- long ago -- but hey, this is the summer of re-runs, and besides, it's my favorite commercial ever, if not the most lyrical thirty seconds of film I've ever seen, graced by an etherial song by an artist I'd never heard of until seeing this.

And while were wallowing in the spirit of re-runs, here's another blast from the past, because payback really is a bitch.

We're in for a long hot summer, kiddos, so stay cool out there.


* The only  career fantasies I had as a teenager centered around becoming a Formula 1 race car driver, which was never going to happen ... and just as well.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 65


                                          Lousy photo of a good book


Among the many things I'd hoped to do in retirement was read all the books I'd acquired and stashed on a shelf during my forty years in Hollywood.  At this point it seems unlikely I'll get through them all before I slide into the quicksand of dementia or shuffle off Shakespeare's proverbial mortal coil, but I'm doing my best.  

The latest to come off the shelf into my lap is Final Cut,  Steven Bach's 1985 start-to-finish insider account of how Heaven's Gate made the difficult transition from script to screen, and as Hollywood's most infamous flop (at the time, the biggest in cinematic history), led to the downfall of the legendary United Artists production company.* 

This copy of Final Cut had been collecting dust for decades, and now I'm wondering what the hell took me so long, because it's a terrific book.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this story could have been a dry, dusty recitation of the march from hope to disaster, but Steven Bach  -- senior Vice President and head of worldwide production for UA at the time -- turns out to be a very good writer.  His gift for prose and ability to reveal the human element in this epic disaster story make his book a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating read.  In the words of Peter Bogdonovich's back-of-the-jacket blurb, Final Cut is:

"A riveting, witty and essentially heartbreaking chronicle of a catastrophe ... a story in which virtually everyone is wrong, but the major indictment is saved for directorial insecurity and corporate incompetence.  At the heart of all this is Hollywood's forever fatal flaw: the equation of money with quality."

I can't add much to that, other than if you're ready for a great, fun read that reveals much about the reality of the film industry while dissecting the wreckage of a legendary Hollywood flop, pick up a copy of Final Cut.   



Another excellent, albeit much more recent read (published in 2018) comes from Bill Kimberlin, who enjoyed some hard-earned success as an independent filmmaker before and during his twenty year career in the editorial department of Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects wizards whose skills helped make George Lucas a billionaire while turning out classics like Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, and Star Wars, among so many others.  It turns out that working for George Lucas wasn't a get-in-line-and-do-as-George-says dictatorship, but a creative and demanding environment in which people were expected to use their skills, intelligence, and initiative to collaborate in creating astonishingly realistic cinematic images the likes of which the world had never seen.  That this approach worked spectacularly well is a gross understatement.  I have vivid memories of seeing Jurassic Park at a theater in West LA, when during an early sequence with a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex, I realized that my legs were involuntarily pressing hard against the base of the seat in front of me, because those astonishing images on screen had convinced my own fight-or-flight reptilian brain that it was confronting the real thing: a living, breathing, hungry, utterly terrifying dinosaur ... and my amygdala was trying to get away from it.

You can see a few behind-the-scenes details of how the ILM crew achieved these cinematic miracles here, where you should definitely watch the ten minute clip "Taming the Creatures," which is in equal measures entertaining and eye-opening.

Woven into the narrative is Bill's own journey into and through the film industry. Although the story is  uniquely his, it resonated on several levels with me, as I suspect it will with many of you.  Like most of us, he wasn't born into the biz, but had to claw his way in by hook or by crook at a time when there was no internet, industry blogs, or Hollywood podcasts to show the way.  Back then, Hollywood outsiders had to go to an expensive film school to receive useful guidance on navigating the labyrinth of the film industry -- and if you couldn't afford that, you had to figure it out on your own.  Having gone to San Francisco State rather than  USC, UCLA, or NYU, Bill took the latter approach, and after a truly audacious attempt to get his foot in the door of Hollywood didn't pan out, found another way, embarking on an odyssey that eventually led him to head the editorial department at ILM.

As he put it the foreword:  "This book is not a history of ILM or Lucasfilm, nor it it a biography of George Lucas. It represents my own personal view and experiences from a life in the movie business and is told in a narrative of vignettes that, like a script, sometime flash either forward or back."

Whether you're a casual observer of the film scene, an industry veteran, or a fanatical Star Wars devotee, you'll find Bill's experiences helping to craft some of the most famous movies of our time as engrossing as I did.  Do yourself a favor and read it.

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Among the many losses we've suffered this year was Ray Liotta, at the relatively tender age of 67.  I used to think that was old, but having passed that mark several years ago, it's hardly a surprise that I no longer feel that way.  I first saw Ray in Something Wild, where he played an intensely scary ex-boyfriend alongside Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, then a few years later as Henry Hill, a young man who joins the mafia, lives the good life, and pays the price in Goodfellas.  He appeared in so many movies over the course of his career, including lots of indy features, always bringing his trademark laser-focused intensity to every role.

Here's a good interview with Ray from a few years ago, which gives a sense of what he was all about as an actor.  Although it's a cliché to say he died too young, clichés exist for a reason -- and Ray Liotta defintely left us much too soon. 

Thanks for the memories, Ray.  RIP.

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Here's a nugget from twenty years ago that I somehow missed, probably because I was saddled with the digital horse and buggy of dial-up internet at the time.  I may be the only person on the planet who hadn't seen until now, but in case a few of you missed it too, here's 405 - The Movie.  It's just three minutes long, so won't eat up the rest of your day, and once you've watched it, you'll want to read this article from the Austin Chronicle, which tells how this brilliant short film jump-started the careers of the two guys who made it.  That they were able to pull off such a convincing visual stunt using the relatively crude technology of 2001 is jaw-dropping -- these two deserved all the good things that resulted from their efforts. 

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If you thought I wasn't going to subject you to yet another re-run, well, think again, my little droogies -- 2022 is the summer of re-runs.  This one might even make the book -- I've been working on re-writing it this week, so we'll see -- but either way, it's a reminder that sometimes the reality of working on set demands that we break the rulesThere's nothing wrong with breaking those rules so long as you know how and when to do it -- and as in so many aspects in life, that you don't get caught. 

That's all for now, kiddos.  Have a safe and sane 4th, and a great month.  Yes, I know: the world is falling apart everywhere we look these days, but obsessing on that -- and doom scrolling -- gets you nowhere fast. July is the peak of summer, so turn off the TV, shut down the computer, put the cell phone on "charge," then get out and have some fun while you can ... because it really is later than you think.


* I don't know how accurate it is, but here's a list of the biggest movie flops of all time.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

June


Here it is June already, the beginning of summer, which means we're already halfway to 2023. It's a cliché to bleat that time passes with increasing speed as I slide into the quicksand of "extremely late middle age," but clichés exist for a reason. I've come to see aging as something akin to falling from an airplane without a parachute: suddenly weightless, not much seems to be happening at first. The ground is so far away that there's no real sense of falling -- you're just surfing on a powerful wave of wind while enjoying a wonderful view.  But after a while you notice the objects down below are growing larger with each passing moment, rushing ever faster towards you -- and in those last few seconds before impact, they're coming at you with shocking speed -- which is when you finally grasp what's really happening, and then ... nothing.  You've exited the mortal realm and moved into the next world, whatever and wherever that may be.

I'm in that second phase of the drop now, with the final phase in sight -- those objects below are definitely bigger than they were last month, but not as big as they'll be next month, so I can't complain. It is, as the saying goes, what it is.

Yes, this month brings another re-run, this one from 2009 when my little cable show was cursed with a young director whose extensive thespian pedigree should have been good training for the job. Alas, no.  I didn't identify him at the time -- hey, I still had to work in that town -- but there's nothing holding me back now, especially since he was recently fired from his job producing a reboot of the very same show that made him semi-famous in the first place, and provided him with a career.  

It's not clear yet what he did to get fired -- sure, he was a lousy director, but I didn't see any untoward behavior on his part during that week of rehearsals and filming back in 2009. Still, I'm not really surprised.  Those who go about their work with a sense of entitlement often must learn first-hand the meaning of "Pride goeth before a fall."  Maybe a year or two in The Hollywood doghouse will instill a little humility ... and maybe not.  At any rate, that's his problem, not mine.

So, step on into the Wayback Machine with me, and here we go.*


* Not that I've jumped out of any airplanes with or without a parachute, mind you, but I've seen enough skydiving footage in movies and on TV to have a notion what it's like.

The Wayback Machine