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, November 5, 2023

November

 


I've been reading a lot of film books the past few years to learn the inside stories of how so many movies we now consider classics -- CasablancaChinatown, The French Connection, The Wild Bunch, and others -- came to be made. When I first became interested in film back in school, my hopelessly naive assumption was that great movies were somehow blessed right from the start: a terrific script attracted a talented director, skilled cinematographer, a great cast, and voila: a cinematic classic was born ... but that's not how any of it works.

There's an old saying I often heard on set: "It's just as hard to make a bad movie as a good one, so let's make a good one," but it's never that easy.  More realistic - and certainly more to the point - is another Hollywood truism: "You can't polish a turd." No matter how good the acting, set design, or cinematography, turning a lousy script into a good movie is an expensive exercise in futility.  As it turns out, a long, difficult struggle was required to usher each of those classic films from script to screen, because the reality then as now is that getting anything new and different made in Hollywood -- where the tried-and-true is gospel and anything else deemed "too risky" -- is like carrying a sixty-pound sack of concrete through quicksand.  Back in the old days before my time, hard-ass, tight-fisted studio moguls like Jack Warner and Harry Cohn would occasionally take a chance based on gut feelings or an impassioned plea (or threat...) from a talented, bankable star or director, but nowadays Hollywood has little tolerance for anything that doesn't involve comic book superheroes.  That the two smash hits of last summer were movies based on a long-dead nuclear physicist and a popular doll sold to generations of pre-teen girls back in the 20th century is unlikely to change the sclerotic corporate hive-mind of modern Hollywood.

But for all the desperate battles fought by Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, Sam Peckinpah and other great directors, none had to face the ordeal of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his star actress Choi Sun-Hee -- both the most famous in their respective crafts  -- who became the most successful power-couple in the South Korean film industry.  The story of their rise and fall is itself a classic film industry tale, but what happened next might make the most outlandish script ever written.  Both were kidnapped separately by agents of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, a fanatical film buff who sought to harness their cinematic talents to bring his country's crude film industry up to world-class standards. This fantastic tale unfolds in the book A Kim Jong-Il Production, which sheds light on the infamously brutal "Hermit Kingdom" of North Korea, a country ruled by a familial succession of iron-fisted despots who turned it into the geopolitical equivalent of a black hole from which little is known and only a handful of people manage to escape.  

You can hear the streamlined basics of the story in this podcast from an episode of This American Life, but the book offers much more, including a history lesson on how the current heavily armed north/south standoff in Korea came about. Truth be told, though, the book is a bit of a slog, and I have yet to finish it, but if the prose is less than lyrical and the pacing glacially slow, the story is fascinating and offers a useful perspective on life in our own Hollywood film industry.  No matter how miserable you might feel at 3:00 a.m. working on some poorly written, low-budget, lousy craft-service pile of cinematic garbage here in America, at least you're not slaving for a pittance under the lash of a dictator who will see to it that you and your entire family are strung up over a blazing fire if you dare complain. 

Remember: no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

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Roger Corman is one of the few living legends still alive in Hollywood. As one of the original -- and certainly the most prolific -- independent filmmakers to thrive in the shadow of the studio system, Corman's ultra-low-budget productions served as an incubator for young talent unlike any before or since. The list of major directors, actors, and countless below-the-line workers who graduated from the Corman school into mainstream Hollywood is impressive. The notable names on the poster of the 2011 documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel are just a few of those who got their start working for Corman as he made films for American International Pictures, then started his own production company and studio with New World Pictures. 

If I'd had any brains when I landed in LA back in the summer of 1977, I'd have knocked on Corman's door, but I was utterly clueless at the time. Instead, I got my start with the now-defunct Crown International Pictures, one of the lesser low-budget production and distribution companies that were around back then.  A few years later, fate finally brought me to Corman's New World Pictures studio -- the old Hammond Lumber Yard -- in Venice, California to toil on a space epic with the working title "Planet of Horrors."  By the time it was released, the title had morphed to Galaxy of Terror, for better or worse.




My tenure there was a brief but interesting two weeks, during which we ran power throughout the stage and spaceship sets to ready them for filming, but the low wages -- I was making $600/week on a flat rate -- did not make me happy, so when a ten-day job paying $250/day came in over the phone, I decided to exit the low-budget feature world and walked away without looking back.  The gaffer replaced me with another warm-body/juicer, but forgot to inform the office that I was gone, which is how another $600 check arrived in the mail two weeks later ... which brought my total income on that project to $1800 for two weeks -- still not great, but a bit closer to market rate at the time. All things considered, I suppose Corman and New World Pictures treated me reasonably well, however inadvertently.  

Only once did the man come on stage to settle some issue, and did so with the Voice of God. Roger Corman was as impressive in person as is his legend in the film industry. He was a unique presence in our business who certainly deserved the Honorary Oscar awarded him by the Academy in 2009. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is a highly entertaining documentary available on Amazon Prime for just a couple of bucks: a fittingly low-budget price for the low-budget King.

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Werner Herzog needs no introduction, but that Wiki-link will fill in the particulars for anyone not familiar with the man -- and once again the word "prolific" comes to mind.  As a director, writer, and actor, he's produced a massive quantity of interesting work -- there really is nobody else quite like him -- so whenever he's interviewed, it's worth a listen. Here's a recent conversation he did for the radio program Fresh Air as they discussed his new memoir Every Man for Himself and God Against All.  I have no idea what that title means, and whether the book is worth reading is an open question -- the NY Times reviewer seems to find it an odd blend of fact and lurid fantasy, and who knows which is which?  Still, Herzog's astonishing life and career are unlike that of any other filmmaker I'm aware of, and the Fresh Air interview is thoroughly entertaining, so check it out.

That's it for November, folks -- I hope every last one of you has a great Thanksgiving.

4 comments:

Debra Rowe said...

Interesting observations, Michael. I happened to have been reading about Casablanca, too. It seems like the lesson is the most resonating movies are made in spite of an original driver’s dream, be it writer, producer, director or actor. There’s some magic that is fermented in conflict, steeped in the imponderables of an era and seasoned by the nuances of culture. not unlike life, I suppose.
Thanks for the Kim Jong Il info. That definitely looks worth following up.
Hurray for Hollywood going back to work… I think? Here’s to the developing story of AI and its impact on storytelling.
And a very happy Thanksgiving to you!

Michael Taylor said...

Deb --

I think you're right about that, although in each case it took one or more people who were almost fanatically committed to the film to usher it through the minefield -- and what often felt like compromises made at the time just to push forward actually made the films better in the end. As the saying goes, it's a collaborative process.

It's definitely good that Hollywood is going back to work, but yeah, it's not all roses. More on that next month.

You should definitely check out that "This American Life" podcast on the Korean filmmakers -- it's not nearly as comprehensive a telling of he story as the book, but it give you the essentials, and is a great listen.

Happy Thanksgiving to you as well!

Debra Rowe said...

Phew, what a story! You’d think that a mind that can recognize a lack of creativity would understand and reject forcing others into captivity. But then you’ve got the regret of the director upon escaping, which is understandable too, considering he was provided with all he truly wanted.
Except mastery over his own agency.
Humans, eh? What a puzzlement.

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