Sunday, June 27, 2010
Recently, I ran into a Village Voice film critic Jim Hoberman at a screening. He hadn’t seen me in years, and he asked what I’d been up to. The truth is I’ve been doing all kinds of stuff: consulting, Oscar campaigns, unit publicity (where you handle press on films while they’re shooting), blogging –for-pay (not with this one, alas), teaching, interviews for electronic presskits or EPKs (those little docs that show up on Bravo or on DVDs), creating a website, even writing and directing a number of short films.
But my main bread-and-butter has come from writing movie press materials. For those of you that aren’t in the business, critics, editors, feature writers are all given little booklets when a film comes out, with short descriptions of the plot, essays on the making of the film, bios of the cast and crew, and other related tidbits. They are usually formulaic, but there is a lot of room for creativity.
You have real freedom to write whatever you want in these things because it isn’t journalism--you always know the talent will get to approve what you write after you turn it in. So it’s acceptable if you combine two words here with three words there and five words there. In fact, it’s fine if you make it all up. Some people are inarticulate, but if you listen to them ramble for a while, you can kind of get what they are trying to say, and then you come up with something short and snappy and quotable. Or they really don’t have a clue, so then you figure out an idea of what they might say if they did have an idea. The funny thing is that most of them actually believe they said it. Of course there are some people who are so well-spoken that they just say three sentences and stop—then you copy it and put it in. Still, knowing that they can change it, I have no concerns at all about polishing the prose from people who actually were extremely effective communicators. I remember showing Robert Redford his “quotes” for “The Milagro Beanfield War” and watching him roar with laughter.
Once I got a call from a distributor sent me a tape of a director’s Cannes press conference as he thought there was great material there. It was true that the things this director said were quoted a lot in the festival press. But I discovered that he didn’t say any of the things that were quoted so often during the press conference. I said them. In the notes.
When I did the notes for “The Naked Gun,” I pulled the whole thing out of my ass. I wrote everybody’s quotes without interviewing them and invented a completely fictional story of making the film. For example, Leslie Nielson was hired because he was the cheapest actor they could get. Then I brought the draft around and asked the filmmakers and actors to approve it. Most people chuckled and said sure, but it was ticklish with Priscilla Presley (a very nice person, by the way). I had to meet around a conference table with numerous reps and advisors and pitch Priscilla quotes. The rule was I couldn’t mention Elvis, which was a challenge. Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker loved it and my favorite moment came when a studio exec came to the set and congratulated them for writing it. (Afterwards it was rewritten by the studio, so I have no involvement with the version journalists actually read.)
For one movie, I had a series of meetings with the director and the screenwriter, a famous, award-winning novelist. The two of them would describe the movie they made and I’d do my best to convey that. Then they’d edit the film some more, decide it wasn’t really about what they’d told me before, and call me back in for another meeting. At one point, the novelist told me that the heart of the film was encapsulated by what a particular character said at the end. Later on, they cut that line out. I loved these meetings and was really sad when they ended. At the final meeting, the author handed me some stunning prose to use for the opening paragraphs, approved everything else, and that was that. It was a great movie. All of them were.
Sometimes books would be published that included Q&A’s I conducted. In one instance, I wrote the questions and a good portion of the answers too. Of course I wasn’t credited, and didn’t expect to be. Just for fun I called up the publisher and she said it never occurred to her that anybody actually wrote any of the materials she got from the studios. And it was at that moment that I realized the magic and glory of writing lowly production notes. You interview lots of people, transcribe it, write something up and turn it in. It can take weeks and there are often extensive revisions. It’s very much like real writing, except that once the job is completed, from that point on, nobody wrote it. And that’s what Hoberman said when I told him that I wrote notes: he had no idea anybody actually wrote them. (He was joking. I hope.) I feel there’s something grand about the egolessness of the work, as I put as much effort and seriousness into it as I do with all my other writing, including the words you’re now reading. So when there is no credit, it puts me in the company of the artisans who built Chartres, even if it is an Adam Sandler movie. And that is wonderful.
But I understand why people think nobody writes production notes. Most of them total crap and my cat could do a better job, and thank God for that, as otherwise I wouldn’t get work. I have been able to make a living because the large majority of publicists have zero writing skills. 99% of them are sent out anyway as nobody wants to spend the money to make it better. I was in the running for one of the biggest movies of last year, and had half a dozen of the biggest stars in the business. Tens of millions of dollars were spent advertising and promoting it. They budgeted $1500 for the pressbook rewrite. This is for the sales angle—the so-called “positioning”--for the film to the entire media.
I’m not complaining. This is one of the greatest jobs you can get if you are a movie fan. I sit here at my desk in Brooklyn and phone up legends. I have written the notes for the last four movies by one of my favorite filmmakers, someone who has enriched my entire life. I doubt I will ever meet him and that is fine with me, as I consider it an honor to have any involvement with him, no matter how modest. And it is proper that he will never meet me because after his revisions are complete, I no longer exist, nor should I.
I do have a single regret from my years of writing pressbooks. When I wrote the notes for “River’s Edge,” Crispin Glover didn’t want to do the interview over the phone; he wanted me to come to his apartment. I just wanted to get the job done with the least fuss and refused his entreaties. It’s not productive to have regrets in life, but I think about that a lot, what I missed out on by not seeing Crispin Glover’s apartment.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
I was stunned and saddened to read in indieW IRE of the death of my friend, film critic Peter Brunette.
I met him in the early 70s at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I was a wet-behind-the-ears undergraduate, and he was a wise and kind grad student. I had a lot of passion in those days but didn’t really know what I was talking about, and there were a lot of people senior people who never missed an opportunity to bring that to my attention. Peter was the opposite. He knew as much--or more--than many of my tormentors did, but he treated me with respect. When I look back, I can see that mentors like Peter changed my life in ways that, although I didn’t really notice them at the time, are momentous in retrospect. So it didn’t surprise me to learn that Peter the young scholar became Peter the professor, so he could go on and influence others.
Peter wrote or edited eight books on film, on directors like Rossellini, Antonioni, and Wong Kar-wai, and Michael Haneke. I’ll let other people talk about Peter Brunette the writer and critic, I’d like to talk about the human being.
What is the mark of a man? What does he leave behind? Everyone is remembered by their family and in their inner circle. Some people become famous and have followers and fans. Other people, like Peter, have an impact that ripples out to the countless people he helped, through an ego-less decency that was second nature to him. His was a lifetime of quiet generosity.
Recently I was reading about a legendary Hollywood director that I knew in passing. His work will live forever I suppose. But I was at the tribute to him shortly after he passed, and let me tell you, there were very few people there, and there was nobody there that had met him more than a few years before he died. He had napalmed every bridge in his life.
On the other hand, read some of the things that people have written about Peter. There are some in Eugene Hernandez’s IndieWire story above and here and here and here. Note that there are people who have known him since his youth and some people who met him weeks ago. I’m sure there are hundreds of people who are thinking about him now, but are too numb to figure out what to say.
It doesn’t matter if you never met Peter, people’s memories of him are worth reading, as they are instructive: they are a testament to a life well lived. No matter how old you are, there is still time to be like him and help a young person get a foothold in life.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
A few weeks ago, I read the New York Times obituary of Callie Angell, the former adjunct curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum, who had been had been researching and cataloguing Warhol’s films since 1991. I had no idea that this ambitious project was being undertaken, and I wasn’t sure what I thought about it.
It flashed me back to my college days at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, when I was a huge fan of Warhol’s films, despite the fact that I had never seen a single one. Most, if not all of the films had been withdrawn from circulation, or very rarely shown, certainly not in Madison. That didn’t stop me. I read everything I could about them, and I was totally fascinated.
One night in the late 70s in New York, I spotted Warhol at a party. I was dying to ask him about his films, but I couldn’t work up the nerve, so I just stood there watching him make his way down an appetizer table. He had occupied so much of my thoughts that it was weird for him to just be there, a plastic cup of wine in one hand and an hors d’oeuvres plate in the other. I realized it was now or never. He was as easy prey as he was ever going to be, so I pounced.
“Excuse me, Mr. Warhol, may I ask you a question?”
Warhol looked at me with his trademark languid affectlessness—a pose or really him?— the ultimate in coolness. He didn’t say anything.
“I’ve read all about your films, but I can’t see them.”
“Oh…” he said.
“Are they in distribution somewhere? Do you have any plans to bring them out?
“You really should. A lot of people want to see them and they can’t.”
“Isn’t it better that way?”
“What do you mean? It’s not better at all--“
But he was gone, leaving me to wonder about what he meant by “Isn’t it better that way?” The hell it was! He was a very important artist and it wasn’t acceptable for him to keep his work all to himself.
I wanted to see “Sleep,” a single shot of a guy sleeping. I knew exactly how long, too. Five hours and twenty minutes. What a concept. I was of the age where my God was Godard. The thing that fueled so many late night discussions at the Plaza Tavern was “What can the Cinema be?” Godard told me that the Cinema could be anything. No limits. That’s why reading about this movie was so heady for me. I knew that most people would find it laughable and dismiss it, but that happens regularly with the most important things in art. But I wasn’t going to be satisfied with reading about “Sleep,” I wanted to see it for myself. What would it look like? Would it be funny? Would it be trance-like? Would it be boring? Would it put me to sleep too? I wanted to know.
“Isn’t it better that way?” Hell no. Drop that canapé and release your movies.
I didn’t think I could get through all of “Empire,” though--eight hours of footage of the Empire State Building is a bit much, even for me. But it was known as a movie designed to be impossible to watch. I wouldn’t turn up for that screening, but I still wanted it shown. Scholars have written about it and they should be able to study it because it has such historical importance.
“Isn’t it better that way?”
“Blow Job” was only a half hour long, and the concept was really interesting. You don’t see the blowjobber, you only saw the blowjobee. You didn’t know if it was a man or woman administering the BeeJay, or even if it was happening at all. I believed that Warhol would insist on the film being real. Would the guy on the screen be self-conscious? Would you be able to read what was going on? “Blow Job” is a silent film, which might give it a feeling of gravity. Would it be like a low-rent Dreyer movie or would it be banal? Warhol was refusing to let me see a movie where I wouldn’t see anything.
His intransigence was forcing me play out all these crazy scenarios in my mind, without knowing anything about these movies except their concepts.
“Isn’t it better that way?”
Sunday, June 06, 2010
Like a lot of people, I was hoping that Mickey Rourke’s job at the deli in the film “The Wrestler” was going to work out for him. I didn’t want him to be picking out staples out of his back—or worse. This job was humiliating for him, but I thought he was pretty good at it. Maybe he could have become manager or whatever.
But I have found this footage, which may explain why that didn’t come to be:
Full disclosure: I think this is funny, but no matter how many times I cut this, PEOPLE PERSIST IN THINKING THAT IT’S JUST A CLIP FROM THE MOVIE! This in spite of the fact that "I'm an old broken down piece of meat, and I'm alone...and I deserve to be all alone…" is arguably the film’s most famous line and IT'S IN THE TRAILER which I saw over a hundred times on TV. Mr. Rourke’s character, Randy, did not ONCE use that phrase to refer to deli meats! And when people asked him for smoked ham or egg salad or chicken--he politely gave all of them exactly what they wanted, no matter how rude or obnoxious they were. He did not serve anybody an old broken down piece of meat. And each person who came to his counter had a remarkably developed character, like the woman who asked for "a little more" and "a little less…" Arrrgggh!
Here’s why I think people think my crappy mashup is an actual scene from the movie? I think it's because Darren Aronofsky is such a brilliant director that he makes everything seem absolutely real. No matter what you do with his shots, they seem authentic. You can't take the realness out of his images, no matter how stupid you try to make them. The actual deli scenes are so filled with humor and frustration and pain that they vividly call up the feelings that everyone has who have ever had to work this kind of job--as I have--has felt intensely.
Aronofsky’s talent is such that these scenes are as alive as any of the more emotionally charged scenes, like his clumsy courtship of Marisa Tomei’s character, and he painful attempts to reach out to his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood. And obviously I realize that screenwriter Robert Siegel didn’t choose a deli job for Randy arbitrarily. It is metaphor and a good one, particularly when you get to the horrifying moment that really marks Randy’s exit from his deli job in the story.
“The Wrestler” is a great film that will reward multiple viewings. And if you haven't seen it yet... rent it