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, February 7, 2021


                                     That's one way to change a light bulb 

We all miss a deadline from time to time, and this is my turn.  I've got a couple of posts in the works, but nothing remotely ready to go for March, so ... here's nothing.  As my official excuse, I'll offer that February is the shortest month of the year, but the truth is I've been putting more effort into the book lately (if I don't, it'll never get done) which doesn't leave as much time or energy for the blog.  With any luck, I'll have something ready for April, but until then -- and apropos of nothing at all -- here's a fox who recently emerged from the woods to take possession of my director's chair.  

 If he starts demanding craft service, I'll be in a world of trouble.

PS:  For reasons I'll never understand, this post went up today -- NOT on Sunday the 28th, as scheduled.  Might have been my mistake, or maybe the Blogger software fucked up. Either is equally likely, but I suppose the "why" doesn't matter now.  Still, if any of you have bothered to read this far, there's one bit of good news:  Peggy Archer put up a fresh post over at Totally Unauthorized last night, so you ought to click on over to read it.

What Was it Like?


There's a saying I used to hear in Hollywood from time to time: "It's just as hard to make a good movie as it is to make a bad one, so let's make a good one." The logic, facile though it is, almost sounds reasonable. Given the colossal expense and massive human effort required to make any movie, why not make it good?  Alas, the film industry doesn't work that way. Sturgeon's Law decrees that "Ninety percent of everything is crap," and this is certainly true in Hollywood. It's not that the writers, producers, or director of any project consciously set out to make a bad movie, but it's just hard to make a good one.*  The script, budget, casting, direction, editing, soundtrack -- and sometimes even the weather -- has to be right (or go wrong in extremely fortuitous ways) to result in a good movie, which is one reason the list of classic films isn't very long. To quote Chief Dan George in Little Big Man: "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't."  

In Hollywood, it's mostly the latter.

I've always wondered what it would be like to work on one of the legendary classics: Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, Casablanca, The Wild Bunch, Chinatown, The French Connection, or Blade Runner.  We all have our favorites -- your mileage will certainly vary -- but these are a few of mine. Was there a feeling among the cast and crew of those films that they were blessed to be working on something truly special, or was it just another job with long hours, difficult working conditions, and never enough sleep?

I'll never know. The only truly good movie I worked on was The Fifth Element, and although a fun, entertaining film, it hardly qualifies as "classic."  One other (Heart of Dixie) turned out reasonably well in a low-budget, workmanlike manner, but the rest of features I did were destined for that ninetieth percentile cinematic sewer so aptly described by Theodore Sturgeon.

Here in the Covid lockdown, I've been reading bit -- a few books hot off the presses, along with older tomes pulled down from shelves where they've been quietly collecting dust. Among the former is The Big Goodbye, which describes the torturous journey of the 1973 classic Chinatown from the first stirrings of an idea between the ears of Robert Towne, all the way through the writing, re-writing, production, and post-production process.** It's a story of personality clashes, ego battles, substance abuse, and good intentions crashing against the unyielding rocks of reality,-- a struggle from start to finish in which the energy and imagination of several smart, talented people came together in something like a relay race, each carrying the creative baton until pushed to exhaustion, then handing it off to the next. At any number of junctures -- including the very end, when all was complete except for the sound track -- Chinatown could have gone off the rails.  That it didn't is a testament to the value of a rough-and-tumble collaborative process, but it sure as hell wasn't easy. Tempers flared, expletives were exchanged, and relationships fractured. At one time or another, bad decisions were made by each of the major players in the drama -- Robert Towne, Bob Evans, and Roman Polanski -- decisions that could have ruined the film as we know it. During a particularly stressful moment on set, Faye Dunaway reportedly threw a cup of fresh, warm urine directly into Polanski's face. With tensions like that, it's hard to imagine the movie could even get finished, let alone be any good ... but Chinatown emerged from that cauldron of chaos as a true classic of Hollywood.

The Big Goodbye is a terrific read. If you want to wait a few months to save some money buying a used copy, fine -- but don't let this one pass you by.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation saved Hollywood sat on my bookshelf for twenty years before I retired and finally had time to crack it.  At 439 pages, it's a long but entertaining and rewarding read. As this review/interview puts it, the book is "a rollicking gossip-propelled magic-carpet ride through the heady days of the ‘70s," and if there's a bit more who-was-fucking-who-and-snorting-what tabloid prattle than I care for, the essence of Peter Biskind's stories resonate with the ring of truth. Still, as Roger Ebert put it: "Biskind has a way of massaging his stories to suit his agenda."

Consider this, the opening of Chapter Seven, titled "Sympathy for the Devil: How bad boy William  Friedkin made The Exorcist, joined Coppola and Bogdanovich in The Directors Company trying to take over the world, while Altman got himself in trouble."

“On December 8, 1969, a scant four months after the Manson murders, twenty-three miles east of San Francisco at the Altamont Speedway in the white trash town of Livermore, Alameda County, 400,000-plus long-haired flower children gathered on a chilly fall afternoon to hear the Rolling Stones in the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock.  Security was augmented by a couple of hundred Hells Angels, who were accustomed to performing such chores for Bay Area bands like the Grateful Dead in exchange for free beer. They came rolling in on their loud chrome Harleys like squat toads atop gleaming steel, accompanied by the loud thrum of the three-stroke engines and the smell of gasoline.”

Hollywood wasn't even on my radar in 1969, so I can't argue with Biskind's tales of film industry intrigue back then -- but I was at the infamous Altamont concert, which took place on Dec. 6, not Dec. 8.  The event was staged in the Altamont Pass, fifteen miles east of Livermore, past a high ridge of rolling hills that separate the town from the San Joaquin Valley. Livermore was (and is) far from the smug urban sophistication of San Francisco, and at the time had a population just under forty-thousand, 97% of them white, but that didn't - and doesn't - make it a "white trash town." The phrase packs an edgy, alliterative punch, but it's a low blow. As for the crowd that day, every media report I've seen and heard put it at 300,000 (a rough estimate, since I certainly wasn't counting heads), not 400,000. A large cohort of Hells Angles was indeed paid with beer to keep people off the stage, and at one point as I waded through the crowd past a yellow bus occupied by several of the bikers, one Angle noticed that I was carrying a motorcycle helmet, and threw me a can of beer.  They rode loud Harleys, all right, but these iconic motorcycles are powered by four-stroke engines -- and if this sounds like a minor quibble, remember that there are no motorcycles, Harley or otherwise, that use a '"three-stroke engine." Although a patent for a three-stroke motor was issued in 1995, more than twenty-five years after Altamont, God knows if it was ever manufactured. As for "the smell of gasoline," well, there was a lot of dope smoke drifting around the crowd that day, so it must have overpowered the reek of gas.

Ahem ... okay, I didn't mean to drag you all into the swamps of digression here, but since I rode my own four-stroke motorcycle (a Honda 305 Superhawk, for what it's worth) to Altamont on that chilly December day, and stayed from the hopeful beginnings to the bloody finish, I feel compelled to push back on someone who writes about as if he was there, but clearly wasn't. Not counting his white-trashing of Livermore, Biskind makes four factual errors in three sentences, which undermines the credibility of this book, laden as it is with footnotes that allow many of those named in the narrative to dispute what actually happened as reported by others. 

Despite these quibbles, Easy Riders/Raging Bulls is a fascinating read that captures the drama of a power struggle as the old order of Hollywood crumbled before the assault of a younger generation that had their own ideas about what movies should be. Biskind is adept at describing the ugliness that so often accompanies talent and success, and as he tells it, each of those legendary directors -- Friedkin, Bogdonavich, Scorcese, Ashby, Rafelson, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Polanski, Schrader, and Spielberg -- was at times a complete asshole, driven as many of them were by fear, insecurities, dysfunctional personalities, overindulgence in drugs, and egos that inflated exponentially with each box office hit. Making movies is a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances, but these young self-styled auteurs were swimming upstream against a sclerotic Hollywood system that had no clue how much American society and culture had changed while it had been busy making the usual star-driven epics.  The films this younger generation wanted to shoot made no sense to the crusty studio heads or the veteran crews on set, all of whom were accustomed to the old ways of working. Given the tectonic stresses involved, there's no way these movies could be made in a calm, orderly manner -- and they weren't. After wrapping principle photography on the first Star Wars in London, an unhappy shoot from start to finish, George Lucas said this:

"I realized why directors are such horrible people, because you want things to be right, and people will just not listen to you, and there is no time to be nice, to be delicate. I spent all my time yelling and screaming at people."


                                          George was not having fun.

Biskind's account details the difficulties all these young directors faced in ushering their films from idea to screen -- The Godfather, The Exorcist,  McAbe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Chinatown, Star Wars, and Jaws (which, according to his book, the on-set crew referred to as "Flaws"), and how terrified they were that the movies would flop, nipping their careers in the bud. Peter Biskind deserves enormous credit for collecting and collating all the material here, which required enormous effort, patience, and determination -- and despite an occasional indulgence in purple prose, he's an excellent writer. You should take Easy Riders/Raging Bulls for what it is: the story of a revolution in Hollywood that changed everything about the movie business and paved the way for the film industry of today, for better or worse. ***  Maybe it plays a bit loose with the facts here and there, but it's a fun, occasionally jaw-dropping, highly entertaining read. History is often written by people who weren't there, through the 20:20 lens of remembered hindsight, so read it with a grain or two of salt -- but read it.  

After finishing both these books, it's clear to me what I should have known all along: working on the set of any movie, be it a future bomb or classic, is just that -- work -- and nothing like the naive, gauzy notions I'd harbored while falling in love with movies in school. The crews on those shows doubtless felt much as I did while working on so many forgettable projects: first and foremost, each was a job for which they got paid, enduring long days of hurry-up-and-wait tedium spiked with sieges of very hard work, their spirits maintained primarily by the black humor every good crew employs to get through an ordeal. When you're sitting on an apple box at 3:00 in the morning, dog-tired and staring at your boots while praying for the A.D. to call wrap, the "magic" of Hollywood is as cold and distant as the dark side of the moon. If the movie flops, so what? So long as the paychecks don't bounce, you're okay. Besides, by the time this one is in post-production, you'll be on another job that's just as much -- and maybe more -- of a grind, and if history later anoints either movie as a "classic film," great. That and five dollars will buy you a small cup of Starbuck's finest.

That much, I understand, and feel in my bones to be true ... but still, a part of me wishes I'd had a chance to work on one of those classics. Some dreams never die, no matter how harsh a light we shine on them.

Maybe in the next life.


* Other than the fictional producers of The Producers, of course -- and yes, I know it's about a play, not a movie...

** For everything you might want to know about the book and the movie -- and then some -- click here.

*** Mostly the latter. Jaws and Star Wars opened Hollywood's eyes as to how much money a big movie can bring in, and now all we seem to have is an endless succession of brain-dead, CGI-laden comic-book  movies.