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, May 5, 2024



Well, it's book time again. I do a lot more reading here on the sunny beach of retirement than when I was breaking rocks in the hot sun of Hollywood, and aim to spread the word about any particularly good reads.  The Wild Bunch, by W.K. Stratton, is all that and more.

Reading If They Move, Kill 'Em was an education in the life, times, and work of Sam Peckinpah, but although the chapter devoted to his most legendary film, The Wild Bunch, is excellent, it tells only a portion of the story. W.K. Stratton's book goes deep into how the movie came about, from the first sketchy idea to theatrical release, and as usual in Hollywood, none of it came easy, least of all the grueling process of filming the script on location in Mexico. Having suffered from the meddling of studio suits in his previous films, Peckinpah was determined not to let that happen again, so chose rugged, remote locations that offered the raw authenticity his story needed with the bonus of being difficult and unpleasant for the suits to reach.  

I must confess that I didn't grasp what an astonishing film The Wild Bunch is the first time I saw it.  Being a callow, uninformed, and thoroughly ignorant young man, I -- like many others at the time -- focused on the graphic slow-motion shootout at the end, and couldn't see the cinematic forest for all those bloody trees.  Many years later on a slow, hot, and unemployed summer afternoon, I saw a fresh print screened at the old Cinerama Dome in Hollywood ... and was totally blown away. Peckinpah's film is so tightly constructed and the performances so letter-perfect that I couldn't believe my eyes. It's a truly magnificent movie.

The story this book tells is equally amazing, especially for anybody who's worked a feature on location.  In that case, you know how hard that can be: so imagine spending months in remote regions of Mexico working for a director who was something of a genius, but also a heavy drinker with a Jekyll and Hyde personality that could be generously described as "volatile." 

If you have any interest in this legendary film, check out the book. It's terrific.


Ed Zwick has enjoyed a golden career as a director, writer, and producer. Starting in television, he made a name for creating Thirty Something before moving into feature films, where he directed Legends of the Fall and Glory, among other notable efforts. Although I'd heard his name many times over the years, I haven't seen many of his movies, but this interview on NPR convinced me to read the book, and it's a truly great read. If my word isn't enough to induce you to read it -- no judgment here, I understand -- at least listen to that interview. It's highly entertaining and well worth your forty-five minutes.

With an opening that includes this, I wasn't too sure about the book at first: 

"I was living in Paris after college on a fellowship to observe experimental theater companies ... when I scored a dream job as an assistant to Woody Allen..."  

So the kid's first industry job is PAing for Woody Allen on the set of Love and Death  -- in Paris, no less --  after which he's accepted to the AFI in Hollywood. Woody then sets him up with a beautiful babe in Beverly Hills, and before you know it, young Ed is writing and directing a network television drama at the tender age of twenty-seven. This origin story carries more than a whiff of privilege, but I suppose a guy doesn't get to choose his parents, upbringing, or early passions, and as the narrative unfolds, it's clear that he had the chutzpa to make the most of whatever opportunities he encountered.

The story takes wing once it gets to directing Glory, which put him on the map as a feature director while running him through the wringer of dealing with a bafflingly intransigent Mathew Broderick and the actor's highly opinionated, domineering mother.  Whatever residual shreds of envy I felt about Zwick's apparently effortless rise to early success in Hollywood, the ordeal Broderick (and his nightmare mother) put him through demonstrates that he paid his dues and then some.  When I got to the story describing how the 23 year old Julia Roberts blew to smithereens Zwick's dreams of directing "Shakespeare in Love" after he'd worked extremely hard to get the studio green light -- and this after six million dollars had been spent on sets and pre-production -- I understood that he earned his subsequent success.  The man is a gifted writer who spins a smooth and deeply personal story laced with wry humor, plus -- for any of you young wannabes still dreaming of becoming directors -- he offers a ton of sage, real-world advice on the craft, every word of which was learned the hard way.  

Here's a taste of Zwick's prose in a section describing what he learned about the diamond trade from a South African journalist while doing research for his film Blood Diamond:

"There was little about the diamond industry she didn't know (and despise). She walked me, step-by-step, through the circumstances by which De Beers' stranglehold on the market in rough diamonds was complicit in financing the bloody Sierra Leone conflict. With her guidance and by virtue of her connections, I visited mines, read spreadsheets and secret memos, peered at rough stones through microscopes, traveled through four continents to talk to jewelers, dealers, smugglers, politicians, captains of industry, mercenaries, NGO do-gooders and corporate spin doctors. What I learned was as complex and rife with contradiction as Africa itself: as faceted and mysterious, one might even say, as a diamond -- a thing both rare and yet abundant, a beautiful object born of ugliness, something indestructible that has also caused so much destruction." 


So yeah, I like this book a lot. Maybe I have some variety of ADD, because I'm seldom able to plow right through any book, which is why I usually have half a dozen on the coffee table with bookmarks in the middle. I always finish them, but not without bouncing from one to another night after night, so it can take me a long time to get to the last page of any book. That didn't happen with this one: instead, I looked forward to sitting down next to the wood stove every night to read a few more chapters -- and there were no digressions.  I didn't even look at another book until I'd finished Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions.  Indeed, my only complaint is that I finished it too soon.

Now, to answer the question the photo of the book above might have raised in your mind ... no, it seems I really can't take a level, non-skewed photo of a book with my iPhone.  

So it goes.


Harkening back once again ... remember this one?  Truth be told, getting through the first half of that book was a bit of a slog. Although the story was true -- a famous director and his equally famous lead actress/wife kidnapped by a ruthless dictator/film buff who wanted them to turn his third-world film industry into a world-class cinematic powerhouse -- there are just too many names and events to keep track of in a very dense narrative, so I put it down for a while.  Quite a while, actually, but I finally opened it again and am happy to report that the second half picks up enough speed to be a fascinating read.  

The whole story would be unbelievable as a work of fiction, but being true, it ultimately comes across as poignant as it is jaw-dropping.  The tale is almost biblical in scope: a love story and marriage go bad as fame, pride, and temptation bring down a high-flying career until the heavy hand of fate intervenes to deliver years of truly brutal suffering. Redemption finally comes, but at a cost.  How does it feel to have a moribund career brought back to life -- to finally get all you ever wanted in professional terms -- at the price of renouncing your home country and living a complete lie?  Then what happens after years of careful planning leads to a narrow life-or-death escape and you're back home trying to explain what happened to a skeptical public and country that doesn't know who or what to believe anymore?  This story brings a double-shot of "be careful what you wish for," and if you can wade through the first half to get to the real meat of the story, you'll be glad you did.  It really is something special.


Daniel Bessner has a long, thoughtful article in Harper's Magazine dissecting the current plight of writers in Hollywood. For all but the most established television writers, life is increasingly uncertain for several reasons Bessner delineates, including the corporate consolidation of the industry. If the link is hidden behind a paywall and you want to read the piece, shoot me an e-mail at the link on the home page and I'll send it along. One caution: I work on a Mac, so it will be in Apple's Pages word processing form, which isn't readable by a PC.  

If you don't have the time to read, check out this 45-minute conversation Bessner had with "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross on NPR, which covers the same territory. The more I hear about the situation in Hollywood these days, the happier I am to be retired.

On that note -- the current state of Hollywood -- here's another snippet from Ed Zwick's book, describing the comments of the studio executive without whose backing the difficult, costly production of Blood Diamond would never have happened.

"I love this movie," he said.  "I'm proud of it and I'm going to hang the poster in my office.  But it's the last one of its kind we'll ever make."

"But why?" I asked.

"Because it cost one hundred million dollars to make and the studio only made a forty million dollar profit," he said, shrugging. "Our corporate bosses expect us to meet a P and L projection every quarter.  It's more profitable for us to lose seventy-five million on one release and then make three hundred fifty million on the next. Those are the multiples we're working in these days. A big movie just for adults can't do that anymore. And forty million doesn't move the needle on the stock price."

So there you go, kiddos: it's all about the stock price nowadays.

Read it and weep.


A nasty accident happened on a shoot in Georgia recently when a stunt involving two picture vehicles went bad. The details remain unclear at the moment, but as this article and video from the NY Times shows, it was bad, albeit not nearly as bad as it could have been. As disturbing as the accident is the absence of an ambulance in case something went wrong.  Stunts are inherently dangerous, especially when moving vehicles are involved, so how can a production company justify not having an ambulance standing by to rapidly transport any accident victims to the nearest medical facility?

Let me take a wild guess: it was the money the production would have had to spend on that ambulance, right?

Same as it ever was.


Closing out on a brighter note, a story about an incident that happened during the filming of Exit Wounds in 2001. It seems that martial artist-turned-actor Seagal wasn't fond of rehearsing, and true to form, refused to rehearse a scene that was set in a houseboat on location. As told by Tom Arnold, who also appeared in that scene, here's what happened.

Spring is finally here after the long winter, so turn off your computer and cell phone, and get out into it.
And hey, Happy Cinco de Mayo!


Debra Rowe said...

Hey Michael:

Enjoyed that.

Your comment about your second viewing of The Wild Bunch got me thinking about the cinematic experience.

Clearly, viewing a good print in a particular screening house as part of a crowd invested in sharing their time with a chosen storyteller contributes to the encounter. Like life, though, storytelling must have to evolve somehow. Now that we can tell and watch movies on our phones anywhere at any time, do we still need tight construction and letter-perfect performances? Have we spent all these years learning things only to find they’re no longer relevant?

I find myself often faced with painfully re-evaluating something I had once treasured or longed for, because now that I have it, it’s no longer satisfying. I don’t really think that a good story or film or piece of music will lose its human interest, but might it prevent or delay further development? If we’re still listening to Bach we’re not listening to Nemo. But what to do when I’d rather listen to Bach?

Enough rambling. Thanks for a good read!

Michael Taylor said...


I really don't think quality -- tight construction and great performances -- ever goes totally out of style, but the definition of "tight" and "great" evolves over time. Granted, easily digestible mass-market cinematic "product" dominates these days, and if people want to watch the latest Tom Cruise or Marvel spectacular on their cell phones, well, that's their business. I have no interest in either genre at this point, but if I was 60 years younger I'd probably love 'em Although some things are eternal, other things we considered eternal back in the day don't stand the proverbial test of time. I've re-watched a few classic film noirs lately -- films I loved in college -- and although I still appreciate the artistry and craft of those films, they don't resonate with me anymore. It's a bit like going back to look at the house you grew up in, and suddenly realizing how small and drab the place really is.

The delight of finding something new and good, though, that truly is eternal.

Thanks for tuning in!