At the end of our last day of filming in Dubai, the production joined the government of this city-state to celebrate completion of the first major western film to shoot here. The President’s beachfront palace was transformed into a private club where the Emirates’ elite and a raggedy bunch of film crew were thrown together to violate every prohibition in Islam.
I’m not much of a party person but I was determined to stretch my limits for this one. I lasted ‘til 3:00 a.m. Many of our crew stayed to watch the sun rise.
As determined as I’d been not to wimp out on the wrap party, I was equally resolved not to waste our last day off in Dubai nursing a hangover.
I awoke around 9:00 a.m., not feeling too much worse for wear, grabbed a quick breakfast and got in my car. I had only the vaguest idea of where I was going. I only knew I wanted to see what lay beyond the gates of Oz. I drove south, past the desert, through the mountains, along the Gulf.
In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, Debra Winger’s character poses the question, “What’s the difference between ‘travelers’ and ‘tourists.’”
A tourist, her companion says, is someone who thinks about going home from the moment he arrives, whereas “a traveler might not come home at all.”
Nicola was more of a traveler than I was. Journalism wasn’t a job for her, it was a passport. She went places simply to see them and frequently changed her return ticket because she felt she hadn’t explored enough. She had the ability to completely disconnect from where she lived in order to inhabit where she was. It was a spirit I admired, if not one I could always fully embrace as I’d gotten older and more “responsible.”
I used to travel alone a lot in my youth. I’d get in a car and drive for days, weeks, the entire summer, stopping someplace and imagining I lived there. Film locations were more like being with a tour group. But in my earlier years, I’d sometimes fly off on my own when the movie wrapped, to explore places like Cairo, Bejing, Bangkok.
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As pundits I normally respect - from Ann Thompson (Thompson On Hollywood) to Michael Fleming (Deadline Hollywood) - fall all over themselves in praise of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, I fall deeper into despair.
“Any viewing that doesn't take away at least in part an anti-war message is missing the point,” writes Thompson. “…It is more a character study… and that seems to be a core of its appeal.”
Well, I’ve obviously missed “the point.”
Maybe I watched a different version, but the film called American Sniper that I saw showed Iraqi men, women and children mowed down like targets in an arcade game because, well, they’re all out to get us. I mean ALL of them.
Maybe that was the “point”: everyone over there hates us and wants to kill us.
If that’s the movie Clint wanted to make, who am I to say he shouldn’t make it? My issue is with the brainy types in the media who praise it as an “anti-war movie” or even a “character study.
Shortly after his introduction as a former cowboy, turned Navy Seal after watching the Twin Towers fall on TV, our Hero shoots a mother and child who are carrying a grenade. No hint is offered, before or after, as to why they might have wanted to blow up a troop of soldiers in the rubble of what used to be their village because, well, who cares? Ahh, but the character study unspools as our hero brushes off a congratulatory backslap in the aftermath. Sorry, that’s a cartoon not a character reveal. He might as well have shifted a cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.
Am I missing the “point?”
Audiences like their villains in black and heroes in white. I get that. But has the Eastwood mystique put Abu Ghraib-style hoods over the heads of all the smart people?
Apparently, the movie envisioned by Steven Spielberg who originally bought and developed Chris Kyle’s book would have taken a more nuanced approach. One can only conjecture from media reports how it would differ, but interviews with the screenwriter (Jason Hall) indicated that Spielberg’s version would have at least made the rival Iraqi sniper a fully dimensional human being. Clint apparently had no interest in that. Eastwood provides a glimpse of a photo of the sniper standing on a podium receiving a sharp-shooting medal. That’s all we need to know about this character. He’s a good shot. Let’s move on to Rambo getting PTSD.
It’s not just that there isn’t a single sympathetic Iraqi in the movie, there isn’t even an innocent victim of war (if you don’t count a father and son killed by a one-dimensional villain called The Butcher for talking to the Americans). The Iraqis are, as the American soldiers make a point of calling them, “savages.” Hey, kudos to Clint for making it clear what the American fighting man thinks of the local population.
Did I miss the point again?
An artist knows what kind of emotion he’s trying to evoke with his art. Was it Clint’s intention to make a movie for gung-ho morons who question nothing about this war? If so, why is the Hollywood intelligentsia lapping this up?
All these smart people fawning over the artist Clint Eastwood and I feel like the kid who slept through the lecture. His brilliant action scenes? Anyone who knows filmmaking should know that the second unit director, Robert Lorenz, shoots most of the action sequences. Surely, the praise is for Clint’s complex character study in which our Hero never questions his mission or learns anything from his experience. After 160 kills, his only regret is he couldn’t go back and kill more.
I wasn’t surprised to read how Sarah Palin loved this film. It’s got her sensibilities written all over it. But I’m questioning the smart kids in the class - the Thompsons, Flemings, even Jane Fonda who recently sent out a “Way to go, Clint” Tweet. She compared American Sniper to Coming Home. Get a grip, Jane.
A $105 million opening weekend would indicate a lot of people are up for seeing American troops kill people – Nazis, Gooks, Ragheads, name your favorite savage. That’s what war does I suppose: force the combatants to dehumanize the other side. But in a better movie like Jarhead we were witness to the dehumanizing process. And it wasn’t heroic.
As an American living overseas, I think American Sniper exemplifies the worst aspects of my country and its cultural exports.
If the “point” of this movie is anti-war, I’m completely missing the point. And if there’s a complex character in American Sniper, I guess I missed him too.
Before the Oscar nominations come out - and after turning in my nominating ballot last week (since you’re not supposed to discuss your vote beforehand) - I thought I’d share the results of my exhaustive movie-watching this awards season. Out of 140 movies sent by screener, iTunes or vimeo, I managed to watch over 100 - including a couple dozen in theaters the way you’re supposed to. Here are my favorite features of the year - with an addendum on a handful of notable disappointments.
TOP TEN – FEATURES
1. BIRDMAN – ***** - by far the most amazing film of the year. Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton brilliant.
2. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR – ***** - Oscar Isaacs is outstanding as an honest man in a violent NY blue collar business. Written & directed by the guy who made a brilliant movie about cut-throat white collar business, Margin Call.
3. INTERSTELLAR – ***** – Gravity x10. Terrific storytelling, visuals. McConaughey, Hathaway always great to watch.
4. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL - ***** - Wes Anderson sets the standard for quirky comedies.
5. BOYHOOD – ***** - brave in its ordinariness. A lyrical look at years passing without great drama or tragedy. Just life as it unfolds.
6. INTO THE WOODS – ***** - I’m a sucker for Sondheim and this is one of his most inventive. Performances and production are stunning.
7. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING - ***** - Eddie Redmayne & Felicity Jones in a surprisingly uplifting movie about love and life’s limitless possibilities.
8. NIGHTCRAWLER – ****1/2 – Riveting but makes you wanna take a bath after. Jake Gyllenhaal is scary good.
9. INHERENT VICE – ****1/2 - P.T. Anderson & Thomas Pynchon combine for a raunchy romp. Lots of hippie hijinks and much weirdness. Lebowski-esque.
10. WHIPLASH - ***** - What an intense movie experience! JK Simmons, MilesTeller just brilliant.
ROUNDING OUT TOP 20 - FEATURES:
SELMA – ****1/2 - A brilliant performance by David Oyelowo almost pulls this civil rights drama into the year’s elite circle. DEAR WHITE PEOPLE - ***** - Not even submitted for AMPAS voting but I loved it. Original, funny, insightful, topical & timely. THE IMITATION GAME - ****1/2 – fascinating story, wanted more about his life and inner struggles as gay man. Brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch.
KILL THE MESSENGER - ****1/2 – detailed, well-told tale of gov’t secrets & the cannibalistic world of journalism. Jeremy Renner. Another AMPAS omission.
ROSEWATER – ****1/2 - Jon Stewart has made an important, well-crafted tale of totalitarianism & what it takes to fight it.
A MOST WANTED MAN - **** - Worthy swan song for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Political thriller w. chilling perf. by Robin Wright.
THE LEGO MOVIE - **** - Original, funny even for adults.
TRASH - ***** - A buried treasure! How brilliant is Stephen Daldry at directing kids? Watch this and see how it’s done. Slumdog Millionaire meets City of God meets The Goonies. No U.S. distribution and doesn’t open in U.K ‘til 30 Jan., 2015. Really belongs in Top 10.
IDA – ****1/2 – classic Euro ‘60s, from lingering two-shots to a two-for-the-road storyline w/ a Holocaust twist. Beautiful b&w cinematography of bleakest Poland.
GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIAN ANSALEM – **** - a little drawn out but shocking expose of religion in civil courts. Brilliant perf. by Ronit Elkabetz
WORST FILMS OF 2015 Rather than a list, permit me a brief rant about 2015 Films that got some decent reviews but left me cold. The coldest - and top of my list for Biggest Head Scratcher of 2015 - was AMERICAN SNIPER. Rambo gets a home life & PTSD. A pointless, racist, soulless exercise. Like a conversation with an empty chair. And by the way, anyone who knows anything about filmmaking should know that all the “action” sequences critics are wetting themselves over were shot by 2nd unit (i.e., “action”) director, Robert Lorenz, Clint’s longtime producing partner. Another one that got some attention but couldn’t keep mine was THE JUDGE. What were the filmmakers trying to make? A character study? A whodunit? Who cares? Not worthy of Downey & Duvall’s talents. FOXCATCHER was well made (Bennett Miller’s a fine director) and acted but can someone tell me why this was a story anyone was supposed to care about? LOVE IS STRANGE made it onto one NY Times critic’s Best list but it’s my candidate for Worst of the Year. Maudlin, boring, with plot holes you could almost fit a director’s ego thru. Lithgow & Molina were wasted. Lastly, ST. VINCENT was burdened with every cliché in the book: crusty old guy, cute friendless kid, hooker with a heart of gold and throw in Bill Murray playing himself. High fructose corn syrup. There were others I’d suggest not wasting your movie viewing time on - that some critics gushed over - but most of you have probably never heard of them, so why bother?
Feedback on any of the above is both welcome & encouraged.
“My hair used to look like that,” he laughed as he shook my hand.
We were in the living room of his sprawling ranch-style house in Maputo, capital of Mozambique where his wife Graca Machel was still an important political figure. He had crossed the room using her for balance.
“I styled it this way just for you, sir.” I was joking around with the greatest man on the planet?!? I’m a truck driver’s son from the San Fernando Valley.
Nelson Mandela had teased me and it felt only proper to tease back. His eyes teased, not just his words. It was impossible not to respond in kind. His ability to put one at ease was legend. I was feeling preternaturally at ease. That floaty kind of comfort where you are so out-of-body you say and do really stupid things with no awareness whatsoever of who’s around to witness. He was tall and grey and straight-backed and though I was probably an inch or two taller than he was at age 86, it felt like I was looking up.
We stood grinning and exchanging quips while the witnesses - his wife, two of his daughters, Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and the African producer of Blood Diamond, Gillian Gorfil - were all waiting for him to sit down. All I knew was Madiba and I were having a good time. There were other people in the room?
After about five minutes of our bonding, he signaled Graca who helped him onto the sofa and propped his head with pillows, less for comfort than to keep him in an upright position. She took a chair near him. Leo and Djimon sat on either side of him. His daughters sat on the opposite side of the room staring at Leo.
DiCaprio was the reason we were all there. No slight on Djimon who was the biggest black African movie star of the decade, but it was because his step-daughters wanted to meet the star of Titanic that Gillian had been able to arrange this meeting with the former president of South Africa.
Gillian had invited me partly because she was a pal and partly – I’m guessing – because she didn’t want to be the only non-celebrity in the room. I pushed to have our photographer Jaap come along, maybe for the same reasons. Then, after she invited our director, my attendance became a prerequisite.
It had come to our attention that Mandela wasn’t happy about our movie. He had been a public booster of DeBeers – the diamond cartel that was one of monsters of our story (albeit with a name change) and that had already begun a multi-million dollar campaign to discredit the film. As keen as we were to meet him, we were all aware the father of the Rainbow Nation might take us to task for dramatizing the horrors of the diamond trade – a key part of South Africa’s export economy. Only our director, Edward Zwick, had the integrity not to put himself in that situation. But Ed gave his blessing to the other four of us provided I was there for damage control. Gillian and I convened the night prior to rehearse arguments in support of our position and graceful ways to neutralize any hot-button moments.
The controversy never came up. In fact, only once did politics come up.
Leo was unusually quiet at the beginning – perhaps out of respect, perhaps measuring his words as celebrities do. It was about a third of the way through the conversation that George Bush’s name was mentioned and DiCaprio launched into a candid assessment of what he thought about the American President. Madiba nodded thoughtfully.
“We got in a big fight the first time we met,” Mandela recalled his first encounter with Bush. “When we were going to meet again, Condoleezza (Rice) was in the Middle East on some important state business but she cut her trip short so could come back and stop Bush and I fighting again.
“It wasn’t necessary,” he laughed. “First you fight and then you have to make peace. You can’t always be fighting the most powerful country in the world. And the Americans think they are God anyway.”
He laughed again but his eyes narrowed, scanning the room. He was still the feisty freedom fighter and perhaps his last fight was to be liberated from the language of diplomacy. His middle name, Rolihlahla, means “trouble maker.”
We all got our chance to exchange words with our host. Djimon and Gillian talked about Africa, their hopes and fears. Mandela talked about the time when he toured the small villages after he was elected. “You have to talk to the people. They know what they want better than you do. You have to listen.”
I greedily leapt at any opportunity to fill conversation gaps.
I’d recently visited Robben Island, I told him, and saw the cell where he’d lived and the garden where he was able to surreptitiously plant notes for other prisoners to find.
“Did you have a good time?” he smiled. “I didn’t.”
That was not a memory lane down which he cared to stroll.
He quickly turned the questioning to me.
“Do you know Oprah?”
Not personally but I certainly know of her.
“What do you think of her?”
I gave what I thought was an admiring but not fawning response.
“Is she good?”
It took me a second: he was asking if I thought she was good politically.
The most famous man in the world was asking my opinion on the political righteousness of the world’s most famous woman. This was the point at which I knew I’d slipped down the rabbit hole. I took a stance in Oprah’s defense.
“I think she’s a solid liberal.” He mulled a moment. Then nodded. Why my opinion merited such consideration will always remain a mystery.
Finally, Graca told him it was time for their family lunch. Jaap took photos of all of us sitting on the sofa next to him, shaking hands. I took one of Jaap.
We were escorted out of the house by the daughters and a son-in-law. Cars and security personnel were waiting for us in the large driveway.
An hour later Jaap and I sat speechless at the local pizza joint.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” he finally said.
I was still in that floaty out-of-body realm where it didn’t seem all that odd.
Only after I returned to my hotel that afternoon and couldn’t quite focus on anything did it really hit me: I’d just spent an hour shooting the breeze with George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi…
Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, Madiba.
Glad you liked my hair.
There were some really good movies this year. Unfortunately, many of them will receive no recognition from the Academy.
As an Academy member, I can’t tell you the movies I nominated for Best Picture. But I can tell you what movies I think should’ve been somewhere on everyone’s ballot. Following – in alphabetical order – are those you really ought to see that you’re not likely to hear Bill Crystal talking about on Oscar night.
1) ANONYMOUS– A movie that wasn’t about a coming apocalypse from director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow). Who knew he had it in him to make an uber-smart film about Elizabethan theatre and the playwright who gave us 37 of the greatest plays ever written – Edward Devere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Rhys Ifans is amazing. Vanessa Redgrave is, well, Vanessa Redgrave. It got thrown a Best Costume bone but I put it here among the totally ignored because Ifans, Redgrave and the movie really deserved to be among the year’s bests. Maybe it was the title?
2) CARNAGE – Roman Polanski didn’t have an Edward Albee play to work from but this story of two couples whose lives and relationships are dissected over a red-herring “incident” is a fascinating look at modern parenting, modern marriage & self-righteous deception. Well worth seeing if only for performances by the two female leads, Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet.
3) CORIOLANUS – Shakespeare or Devere, this contemporized version of the Bard’s tale of a warrior without a cause is worth seeing just for the scene where Vanessa Redgrave (her again) shows herself as the ultimate smother mother. Ralph Fiennes knocks it out of the park as both star and director.
4) A DANGEROUS METHOD– David Cronenberg brings a fantastic cast – Fassbinder, Vigo and not-just-a-pretty-face Keira Knightly – to a riveting story about Freud vs Jung: let the grudge match begin. Yes, sexuality is a tough subject (violence, on the other hand.... don’t get me started). This deserved to be a multi-category nominee.
5) THE FIRST GRADER – Never heard of it? That’s ‘cause it deals with Africa. Story about an old man who was tortured in a war no one ever heard of who is determined to learn how to read. No special effects, no stars, no box office appeal whatsoever. Just a beautiful story about triumph of the will.
6) MARGARET – OK, it helps to know what an Upper West/East Side privileged teenage Jewish girl is like. But Anna Paquin and the rest of the cast present a story of moral ambiguity that only someone like Scott Rudin would have the guts and intelligence to produce. Don’t expect to understand it, just appreciate the complexity and depth and brilliant performances by Paquin, Jeannie Berlin and J. Smith-Cameron.
7) RAMPART– Not easy to watch, no likeable characters and not easy to follow. Just Woody Harrelson and director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) re-teaming in a character drama with a James Elroy script. If those elements don’t work for ya, how about Robin Wright as sexy as you’ve ever seen her? Hot doesn’t begin to describe.
8) SENNA– I don’t understand the exclusion of this one from Best Documentary consideration. It wasn’t just a popular documentary, it was a GREAT documentary. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this as a Best Picture candidate (probably not a nominee but a possible candidate). The story of a matinee idol race car driver has amazing footage and a powerful narrative.
9) IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY – I wouldn’t want to watch it twice but watching it once is an experience. Angelina has learned how to make a movie. Prediction: someday she’s gonna put it all together in a Schindler’s List/ Killing Fields kinda film that’s gonna win it all.
There were others that got one or two second-tier nominations but should’ve been candidates for more:
1) BEGINNERS – Yes, Chris Plummer was brilliant and deserves the Best Supporting Oscar. But the movie was brilliant. One of my favorites of the year. One of those movies I’ll never get tired of seeing.
2) DRIVE – I wasn’t among those to declare it one of the year’s best but it certainly deserved more than a Best Sound Editing nomination.
3) THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN – The reason this movie wasn’t considered as good as Rango or Puss in Boots (both of which I liked) is…? I had no history with this character but can’t wait for the next episode.
4) WARRIOR – A sensitive movie about an angry ex-Marine who winds up fighting his brother in a bloody Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) championship? Tom Hardy is especially good as the pissed-off Marine. I love Nick Nolte but there were better Supporting Actor candidates who went unnoticed.
5) RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – I went in a skeptic and came out a believer. An entertaining out-of-the-box plot, with decent dialogue and a big heart make it more than watchable. Wish there were more indies this watchable. It got a nomination for Best Visual Effects.
And the Saddest Non-Nomination of the year goes to:
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2 – Which part of THE MOST SUCCESSFUL and respected FRANCHISE IN THE HISTORY OF MOVIES doesn’t the Academy understand? This series of movies will be watched, admired and remembered long after the world has forgotten Hugo & Warhorse (no disrespect – just picking on the two biggest). Sure deserved better than just a Best Makeup, Art Direction and Visual Effects nominations.
Share your thoughts if you have a moment between now and February 26.
‘Tis the season when movie crews clutter the airports.
We’re staying in the U.K., cluttering the highways. My last film ended a month ago, so I’ve been home for awhile. But many of my colleagues have been working on movies that started in the fall and will continue into the new year. They haven’t seen home in months and this is the time they’ve all been looking forward to: Christmas Hiatus.
Hiatus, I believe, comes from the Latin, hibernate-at-krismus.
It’s like a fat Xmas stocking to working crew. Most of us get our one-line schedules at the beginning of a job and sneak a peek at how long a hiatus we’ll have before even checking our wrap date. Not that any movie schedule is reliable - which means it’s impossible to make plane reservations until you’re well into filming and can get a sense of how slow it might be going. Many a December 21 hiatus has been pushed to December 22 – and airlines don’t care that your movie lost a day to bad weather.
It’s custom – if not statutory - to give the crew Christmas Day and New Year’s Day off. It’s customary, however, that crews get a span of days, usually from the first hot toddies on the pre-holiday flight home thru January 1 hangovers on the return. Some friends on the new James Bond film here in London are getting a three-week hiatus. How very Bond.
I was appalled when I heard from a friend who is working on a big-ass movie shooting in Michigan, that they’re not getting any hiatus at all. Michigan! That’s in the middle of… Nowhere! Alright, a lot of the secondary crew are probably local but this is a BIG movie for which they brought in a lot key people from L.A. and N.Y. These are now Christmas orphans, stranded in… Michigan!
Producers, you make movies about Grinches like you! Do you totally miss their simplistic moral? Everybody wants to be with friends and families at Christmas! Think about Tiny Tim, the prop man’s son, waiting by the window for Dad to come home and lift him up so he can put the replica Texaco star on top of the tree. You bunch of corporate Scrooges!!
Then again, with the industry trending towards fewer movies and smaller budgets over the last three years, there are a lot of skilled people out there for whom the hiatus has already been too long. I don’t think the crew on the Michigan movie would trade places. This can be a cruel business – but there are degrees of cruelty: too much work is bad; not enough work is worse.
It’s been another tough year for a lot of people. Their hiatus might’ve started in June or July. Or maybe 2009 or 2010 – as total movie production decreased by one-third. There’s a gallows joke going around that if the current trend continues, studios will run out of movies not to make by 2020.
Another linguist has traced the word hiatus to the Greek God Hitchcockalus, who envisioned a day when movies might be made without actors. It’s not known whether he foresaw the same thing with crews. The word is also similar to the Aramaic expression for temporarily unemployed. There are probably conjugations that suit different circumstances.
Be it etymologically or logistically challenging, long, short or just right, I’d like to wish a Happy Hiatus to you all.
Here’s hoping the last year of the Mayan calendar brings as many jobs and as many days of hiatus as you want.
“Lunch” has so many meanings in our business.
“Let’s have lunch,” sometimes means an invitation, sometimes a brush-off.
“Let’s do lunch,” often means the speaker is a complete putz.
“See ya at lunch,” usually means there’s a meeting.
“That’ll be lunch,” means crew break.
“What’s for lunch,” is always first on everyone’s mind.
“Who do I eat lunch with?” is always second.
Lunch is an interesting ritual on a film set. Sometimes the stars will retreat to their trailers where a production assistant brings them lunch; sometimes key department heads will retreat to a room to eat box lunches while watching dailies; sometimes dieting crew members will skip lunch for walks or exercise.
But for most of us, lunch is a chance to sit down – after six hours of standing - for a social breaking of bread. Usually very good bread. And often valuable conversation.
Lunch is where most of us learn what movies are crewing up, why it took so long to shoot the last scene and who’s been seen doing what with who.
Most film crew lunch lines are democratic: he or she who gets there first eats first – and the half-hour or 45 minute break allotted begins with the last man or woman served. Races to lunch are not uncommon. You usually try to sit with your department or someone you know.
But like in high school, it’s hard to save seats. And if you arrive too soon before or too much after your mates…
You wind up sitting with zombies.
OK, I broke for lunch a little early. I was hungry, I couldn’t bear another pass by craft services and I wasn’t needed on set. I couldn’t find the rest of my department – i.e., the stills photographer – to ask if he wanted to break with me, so I headed to the lunch tent alone. Alone.
The drivers were almost finished eating; they arrive earlier in the morning and break earlier for lunch. Very few crew were released for lunch yet and I was as content to sit with my Kindle as with anyone present. I’d only just opened Kindle to the last page read when break was officially called and hordes of crew poured into the lunch tent.
As tables filled up, mine remained blissfully un-invaded (film crews tend to keep a respectful distance from lunch-time readers thinking it must be part of the person’s job; otherwise who has time for reading?).
“Excuse me, you saving these?”
The questioner was a man in his mid-thirties, a torn flannel shirt and a hole in his neck, which was clotted in black to match his prominent veins and an inch-thick streak of dried blood that ran from his hairline to the middle of his forehead. I estimated stage 2 decay. He was accompanied by a lovely hospital worker of some sort, missing a piece of her upper right shoulder, uniform splattered in a brownish-red, only recently re-animated judging by her state of decomposition.
I pause here to explain this was not my first mutant barbeque. I’ve dined with Ebola victims, an ample number of amputees with bloody stumps, beating victims and worse and a regular diet of aliens and creatures.
But these two were really unappetizing.
“Help yourself,” I stammered, gesturing at the empty seats around me.
No sooner did they sit than two other zombies came to join them. Then a fifth. I was surrounded by very nice people, talented people – these actors were also dancers and acrobats – who just happened to look disgusting.
Somehow, returning to my book and trying to ignore them seemed, well… a little rude. It wasn’t like they chose to look this way – though, come to think of it, they probably had to audition. But well… maybe they deserved a little respect after going through four hours of hair, makeup and wardrobe to get a few seconds running past camera. Mostly I think, I just didn’t want them to smell fear and loathing coming from a seasoned professional like myself.
So I started talking to one. Her name was Jane. She wasn’t too badly decayed. I tried not to stare at her black lips and discolored teeth between which there appeared to be remnants of… Don’t look there. She was a vegetarian, she laughed. I admitted my relief. She laughed again. She was a dancer from London and had a fourteen-year-old daughter who was a budding hell-raiser. I dropped in my standard pop-psyche line about the child of fourteen-year-old being a four year-old with more power.
“God no!” wailed a zombie with purple eye-shadow, a cracked cheek and a bullet hole in his chest seated next to her. “My four-year-old already thinks she’s fourteen!” Laughter all around.
Four out of the five of them had kids and as the oldest parent present, I was the go-to guy for advice. Just with boys; no expertise in girls. Of any age.
It was a lively conversation.
Before we knew it, a p.a. shouted, “we’re back in” and my lunch-mates had to return to being terrifying flesh-eating ghouls.
I went to grab a salad for dessert.
It was kind of spooky eating alone.
London: Havoc in Parliament, Scotland Yard and the Murdoch Empire.
As if they didn’t have enough to worry about, England now has American drivers on its roads. Call it collateral damage from World War Z – the movie I’m working on here.
I’ve been given a car to take me to and from our multiple English locations. Not a car and driver, as has been the case on previous UK movies, but in the new fiscal reality I’ve only been able to swing what our deal memos refer to as a “self-drive.”
A birdseye view of London would resemble a black widow spider’s web: no pattern, no shape, a tangle of threads that bend, then end on a drunken whim. I was told that the last American publicist who tried driving here showed up at work every day with a new dent in his car. More recently one of our American technicians, having done the torturous tour thru Central London to Elstree Studios only once, simply abandoned his car on the lot and has been getting rides to and from set with the electrical department ever since.
Driving in London is not a sport for the faint of heart.
I’ve driven in cities all over the world – even right hand drive (with stick shift!) in places like South Africa, Malta and New Zealand. No place scares me more than London. It’s not the slalom around buses and bicyclists, nor even (well, maybe a little) two-way streets the width of a bowling lane that allow parking on both sides.
My fear of driving in London is getting lost: never finding my way back to Nicola’s flat in Shepherds Bush and being forever stuck on a roundabout with no exit.The maze of roundabouts here must have been designed by Lewis Carroll.
Outside the city are the motorways: the M1, M4, M25…
Let’s take the M25 for example - which I had to take to Longcross Studios the first week of work. On day 2, I overshot one turn, somehow wound up back on the M25 and drove 20 minutes before I could find a place to turn around. The M25 goes in a circle around the city – like the highway loop around DC. But if you miss your exit in DC, you can get off at the next exit. There are no exits on the M25, just options that lead to other motorways – all of which seem to be spaced 10-15 miles apart.
Out of this chaos has come a deep and, dare I say, profound relationship.
I call her Lily. I don’t know her real name. She is, you may have guessed, the voice on my GPS. In confident, posh tones – like a sympathetic dominatrix – she tells me what to do and I do it. And like most women telling a guy what to do, she is always right but often obtuse.
“Sharp right at the roundabout, then take 3rd exit.”
One, two… wait, was that an exit? Damn I’ve taken the 4th exit, which leads me onto the M1 which will take me miles out of my way. Lily neither scolds nor corrects (as American GPS systems do: “recalculating”). She merely tells me, “continue straight” and 15 miles later has me turn around.
She is not a good judge of distance. “Right turn coming up,” as I’m already making the right turn. “In a quarter mile, turn left.” “Left turn coming up” and I’ve already passed it.
I’m a big fan of quiet time in a car. But Lily can go for long stretches without the need to talk to me. And when she does interrupt my driving daydreams, it’s always to tell me something important. “Right at the roundabout; take 3rd exit.”
One, two… yikes! Why didn’t you say I only had 30 feet to cross three lanes of traffic to exit left???
“Exit coming up.”
She won’t engage in argument and she doesn’t respond to my temper tantrums. Lily is doing more than teaching me how to get around London: she’s making me a better man. I’m learning how to listen, observe and use my intuition. I think she’s teaching me how to understand women.
“Straight on at the roundabout, then slight left.”
Lily, you sure know how to sweet-talk a guy.
Do you have dinner plans?
I got very little sleep my last two nights in New York, then took a red-eye to London where a 10 hour layover gave me the chance to get three hours sleep at an airport hotel before catching a 3 ½ hour flight to…
Where I am now. (You see, we all sign an NDA - non-disclosure agreement - which, in my position, I have to take seriously. Even if no one else does.) Let’s just say I’m on an island. Nine time zones from home.
What makes all this body abuse (and nuclear secrecy) worthwhile?
The excitement of the circus tent going up: running into old workmates in the production office, in the halls of hotels, at tables in restaurants. Catching up briefly before the conversation turns to the job we’re all here for. Big job. Challenging job. How’s the family? How’s your hotel room? Looks like an ambitious schedule. You didn’t know we were working six-day weeks? She’s great, I worked with her on…
There are people who have been hoisting canvas here for a year or more; others who only flew in yesterday. They came from everywhere: Italy, Ireland, the UK, Germany, North Africa, Asia, Australia and, of course, America. The best film technicians and craftsmen in the world, noted artists in their own field. And a few novices who caught a break.
I arrived two – or was it three? – days ago to deal with press and public relations requests that had been coming in from this and two other countries where we’ll be filming. Plunged right into the action. Fatigue gave way to adrenaline.
I have to get up in six hours and I’m still on a cuckoo body clock. But my final thoughts of the evening play over Billy Joel’s Say Goodbye to Hollywood.
One thought superintends: what a lucky old hippie I am.
We start filming tomorrow.
Went to one of John DeSimio’s parties recently. A stylish bon vivant, former publicity executive, John’s frequent hostings attract a diverse and brainy crowd of mainly industry types. This was a couple of weeks after Ronni Chasen’s funeral and Ronni was still the introductory topic of conversation. Her memorial was a tribute not only to one of the legends of the publicity business but – as most Hollywood events are – a celebration of this small community. Everyone was warmed in the retelling of tales about our late colleague.
Then the topic changed – as most Hollywood conversations do – to the state of the business. Everyone was also warmed by this exchange.
Misery loves company?
Gatherings like John’s normally produce good networking, good gossip and just good fun – for those who can follow the alphabet soup of names floating in anecdotes and updates. Not a lot of star names; these are working people – writers, publicists, journalists – who mainly talk about insider stuff: which projects have gone into turnaround, who’s changed studio’s, where so-and-so is traveling. But in the past two years, these kinds of conversations have become something akin to the bon homme in a bomb shelter. It’s been another terrible year for the movies – work wise and otherwise. We all know it and we all need to talk about it.
In fact, talking about it is helping some of us get through these lean mean times in the movie biz.
The film community isn’t a myth – and it’s not all about schadenfreud. At least not always. Everyone to some degree has felt the pinch of the movie industry downsizing. Even many of us who’ve been lucky enough to work regularly have taken body blows to our confidence that there’ll always be work. One can feel the eerie quiet before the next bombardment.
Gatherings like these – in times like these - expose the softer side of Sammy Glick: people trying to think of ways to help their underemployed colleagues. Like a fighting unit in which some seek heroics while others are just trying to stay alive, the film community is a fractious, bumptious bunch of Me-Firsters – until the battle begins and we see our comrades fall. It’s a common fate that unites us – whether in grief or economic hard times. Even when we look around at the devastation of downsized staffs and dumbed-down films, we have a take-away: we are a community., helping our friends find work, mourning our collective losses, consoling one another and mapping out ways to fix what’s broken.
So, thanks again Ronni for reminding us we’re part of a little village the rest of the world calls Hollywood; thanks John for giving some of us a place to come together. Here’s hoping 2011 brings peace and prosperity and that we carry with us the big lesson of 2009 and 2010: We are family. Sing it with me now.
And Happy New Year to all.