Monthly Archives: February 2015


February 26th, 2015 5 Comments



Let’s see.


So far, we’ve concluded that directors are control freaks who like to play God—both on the set and in real life.


They are also ruthlessly manipulative, willing to do whatever must be done to get what they want.


What else?


Oh, yes.


They tend to be a bit obsessive.


In reality, it’s a requirement for the job.


A director must live, eat, breathe nothing but the film he’s working on.


Totally immerse himself or herself in the project to the exclusion of everything else.


Lamont Johnson used to tell a story that casts some light upon directorial obsession.


Lamont himself was no slouch in the obsession department—his films took absolute possession of him during the making of them.


But his monomania was dwarfed by that of David Lean.


Here’s his story.


Lamont was making a wonderful film about an attempted escape from a German prisoner of war camp in Scotland. It was called The McKenzie Break, and he decided to shoot it on location with Ireland standing in for Scotland.


As he led his convoy of actors and crew up the coast of Ireland to shoot his movie, he passed David Lean’s company shooting the storm scene for Ryan’s Daughter.


Months later, after completing his own film, he led his people back down the coast, past David Lean and company, still shooting the storm scene for Ryan’s Daughter!


Think of it!


Lamont managed to make an entire movie in less than the time it took Lean to shoot a single sequence.


Was it worth it?


If you’re a Lean fan (and I definitely fall into that catergory), the answer is an easy and immediate YES!


It resulted in one of the greatest sequences in film history.


If, however, you’re a studio executive—say, the head of MGM, which was financing the film—your answer would be a resounding NO!


The film almost bankrupted studio and was a significant factor in the subsequent sale of its legendary lot.




…directors are, almost by definition, obsessed.




But they can’t be too obsessed, or they run the risk of playing Ahab, going down with their ship and taking every one around them with them.


Think of D.W. Griffith and his grand folly, Intolerance.


Erich von Stroheim and Greed.


Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now!—which ultimately paid off but just about broke him financially and emotionally.


Or to choose a recent, happy example, Iñárritu and Birdman.


I can’t begin to imagine the years of obsessive planning required to make a film in what is essentially a single shot, a feat beyond the reach even of the great Alfred Hitchcock, who attempted it in Rope.


So there you have it.


Directors are ruthlessly manipulative, obsessed, monomaniacal control freaks.


My only question?


Why did I fail in my repeated attempts to direct?


I clearly have all the qualifications for the job.

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February 18th, 2015 3 Comments



In my last diatribe, I offered The Stunt Man’s Eli Cross as the epitome of the Hollywood director.


He is, in his own mind at least, bigger than God.


Omniscient.  Omnipresent.  Omnipotent.


In control of everything and everyone around him.


Of course, in order to retain this control, he sometimes has to resort to trickery and manipulation.


He is a merry prankster who takes delight in toying with his actors.


His female star is Barbara Hershey at her loveliest and most charming, and he has some concern about her being able to handle an up-coming scene in which she has to feel shame and humiliation.


What does he do?


Well, her parents have come to visit the set, and while she’s off in hair and make-up, they join Noah for the dailies. One of them, which he arranged to include “by accident,” has her stark naked in bed with one of the other actors, casual, relaxed, joking with the crew.


Her parents are, of course, shocked and appalled. Always the gentleman, Noah apologizes profusely.


But he makes sure they’re on the set when he shoots the big scene, the one in which their daughter has to show shame and humiliation.


She isn’t getting it, but hey, no problem.  Noah simply lets slip the fact that her parents accidentally viewed that shot of her in bed.


You want shame and humiliation?


Well, he gets it!


He’s like Lola.


Whatever Eli wants, Eli gets.


Directors are, or sometimes have to be, ruthless people.


Even my dear friend and mentor, Lamont Johnson, was guilty.


Perhaps his finest film was The Execution of Private Slovak. It’s the story of the only American soldier executed for desertion during World War II, and the big scene is, of course, the execution itself.


The firing squad—under orders to kill one of their own—lines up, aims and fires.


Slovak drops.


But he does not die.


And while he lies there mortally wounded, Lamont slowly pans the faces of the men on the firing squad who wait, knowing they’re going to have to shoot Slovak again.








It’s an unforgettable moment, and for many of the cast and crew, it was an unforgiveable moment as well.




Well, before shooting the scene, Lamont pulled Marty Sheen, who was playing Slovak, aside and told him that when the rifles went off, he wanted him to drop to the ground, roll around and shout, “I’m hit! I’m hit!”


Sheen followed Lamont’s instructions.


He went down.


Everyone on the set assumed that one of the rifles had contained a live round.


They went nuts when Lamont insisted on keeping the cameras rolling!


He had hold back Ned Beatty, who was playing the chaplain and was shouting, “You son of a bitch! You son of a bitch!” as he tried to get to Sheen to render aid.


It was while this was going on that Lamont panned the faces of the actors on the firing squad, actors who thought they had just killed Marty Sheen.


It’s one of the great moments in film history, but it came at considerable cost.


Directors do what must be done to get what they want.


I, who have never directed, am guilty as well.


Some of you may know singing sensation Jenny Stewart.


She started not as a singer but as an actress and was cast as a featured player in a telefilm I wrote.


It was called Talk To Me, and it was the story of a television producer, an idealistic young woman who thinks she can bring talk show back from the sleazy exercises they’ve become, back to what they were in the days of Phil Donohue.


She mounts a show in which her guest is a drug-addicted prostitute played by Jenny Lewis, and the producer’s biggest job is trying to keep the lost young woman clean for her appearance on the show.


Unfortunately, Jenny’s character backslides, starts using again, and manages to get herself arrested, so our producer has to go the local jail to see if she can somehow bail her out.


There is a confrontation between them in the jail interview room.


Jenny’s character, in agonizing withdrawal from a heroin high, begs the producer to get her out of jail.


It’s an emotionally shattering scene, and Jenny, a fine actress who is sometimes very slow to find her performance, just isn’t getting it.


I’m sitting next to the line producer as the director does take after take to no avail. I whisper to the producer that he’s got to do something. What? he asks. What can he possibly do?


I tell him the story of how Lamont got that amazing performance from the actors on the firing squad in Slovak. The director’s got to manipulate Jenny in the same heartless way, and if he won’t do it, the producer’s going to have to do it for him.


Take six.


Jenny still isn’t there.


The producer hangs fire.


Increasingly desperate—after all, this is the big emotional moment of the film, I tell him about the scene in Stunt Man in which Peter O’Toole coldly humiliates Barbara Hershey to get the performance he needs.


You’ve got to shame her, I tell him. Make her angry.


Take nine.


She still isn’t there.


Take ten.


We still haven’t got what we need.


The director tells the crew, “All right, let’s move on.”


And the producer, to his everlasting credit, shouts out, “No, goddammit! We’re going to do it until she gets it right!”


Take eleven.


Jenny, weeping with humiliation and rage, is electrifying, taking the scene beyond anything I had imagined.


It’s possibly the worst thing I’ve ever done to another human being, but the result is the highlight of a dazzling performance—one that should, in a just world, have earned this talented young woman an Emmy.


I did what needed to be done.


Postscript: Those of you interested in the full, behind-the-scenes story of Talk To Me might want to peruse Chapter 91-100 of Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.


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February 13th, 2015 4 Comments

images Scratch anyone who works in Hollywood, and what will you find inside?


Nothing, you answer.


Well, that’s not really fair.


In many cases, you’ll find ruthless ambition.  In others, unbridled arrogance.  In still others, an ego of monumental proportions.


It varies from individual to individual.


But the one thing you’ll almost always find is a desire to direct.


Interview a star, a big-time producer, a hot screenwriter, or even the craft services person who serves coffee on the set, and at some point you’ll hear that familiar refrain: “But what I really want to do is direct.”


I myself have been guilty of a single-minded pursuit of that ever elusive goal—foiled in one instance, by food poisoning; in another, by an earthquake; in yet another, by the sudden rise of reality tv.


What, you ask, is the appeal?


Why does everyone is Hollywood want to direct?


The best answer is to be found in an overlooked masterpiece of filmmaking known as The Stuntman.


It’s the story of a Vietnam vet on the run from the law, who takes refuge with a film company shooting a World War I melodrama. Forced to replace a stuntman whose death he inadvertently caused, he risks his life again and again in a series of impossible stunts for director Eli Cross.


It’s an existential comedy which portrays man as utterly alienated, life as a chase with death nipping at your heels, and the world as a trap where nothing is what it seems, no one is what he appears to be, and free will is an illusion—a world presided over by a jokester god who takes great pleasure in manipulating his creations.


That god, of course, is the director—Eli Cross played by Peter O’Toole in a performance that equals his Lawrence of Arabia, a performance he claimed he modeled upon David Lean.


Eli is omnipresent.


He lurks in darkened hallways, descends and ascends in his helicopter, swoops down out of nowhere in the bucket of his camera crane.


He is also omniscient.


Nothing escapes him. Whatever his actors think or say or plan or do, he knows.


And he is omnipotent.


When, at the end, the stuntman decides to defy Eli and take charge of his own life, Eli manipulates him into doing precisely what Eli wants.


No one, not even a studio executive, can challenge him. If the suits try to cut his picture, “I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them and eat them. I hate to waste anything.”


Eli is God.


No, he’s bigger than God.


As he himself so eloquently puts it, “If God could do the tricks we can do, he’d be a happy man.”


So there you have it.


The director as God.


Is it any wonder that most Hollywood types want to direct?


But, you insist, Eli Cross isn’t real.


He’s a fictional character.


All right, you want real, I’ll give you real.


A friend of mine is a writer for a major Hollywood journal. He recently did a profile of one the biggest, most successful, most acclaimed directors in town.


The day after the profile was published, he received a six-page, single-spaced typewritten letter from the director listing the changes he wanted the writer to make…in this article that had already been published!


Directors are control freaks, and they try to exercise the same control in their daily lives that they do on the set.


It often doesn’t work out.


I wonder.


Do you suppose that this urge to control had anything to do with the fact that David Lean, who was—you’ll remember—the model for Eli Cross, was married six times?


I just picked up Lean’s monumental biography.


Well, actually, I couldn’t pick it up.


It’s too heavy.


Requires a forklift to move it around and a steel easel to hold it.


When (if?) I finish it, I’ll let you know the answer to the question I raised.


In the meantime, trust me, directors are people who want to be in control, and if you’re not one of those people…



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February 6th, 2015 4 Comments



We’ve all heard the old saw.


“Those who can’t, criticize.”


But I doubt any of us have heard it expressed so eloquently or so passionately as it is in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman.


Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a movie star fallen on hard times after walking away from the leading role in a superhero franchise, is risking everything that he has, everything that he is, to mount a comeback—to prove himself and his talent on the boards of Broadway.


It’s not going well.


In fact, everything is threatening to fall apart.


With catastrophe looming, he takes refuge in a bar off the Great White Way, drinks himself silly, and ends up in a confrontation with powerful, arrogant New York Times theatre critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan).


Tabitha tells him she’s going to destroy him and his play, which she has yet to see.




Because she resents Hollywood celebrities like him— untrained, unversed, unprepared—filling Broadway’s precious theatre space with nothing but their egos.


Riggan turns fire-breathing dragon.


In fact, he’s so drunk you probably could light his breath, but the booze has freed him of all restraint.


Whatever happens, he asks her contemptuously…whatever happens in a person’s life to make them become a critic?


She offers theatregoers nothing but labels, no real analysis, just adjectives and bitchery. None of it costs her anything, he insists.


He, as an actor, risks everything for his art.


She, as a critic, risks nothing, creates nothing.


And I silently shout, “YES!”


It’s a bit like All About Eve’s Margo Channing giving Addison DeWitt the shellacking he so richly deserves, or Ratatouille’s Remy dressing down the despicable Anton Ego.


It’s a brilliant actor giving voice to the frustration of all the talented performers, writers, artists, composers, choreographers—all the creative souls—who have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous, self-aggrandizing critics.


I burst into spontaneous applause, much to the annoyance of my fellow filmgoers.


And then…


…I remember my own complaints about Hollywood’s invasion of Broadway, and I recall that famous line from Walt Kelly’s Pogo.


“We have met the enemy and he is us.”


I myself, I reluctantly admit, have been guilty of writing film and literary criticism of late.


I wish I could offer some excuse.


Well, actually, I can.


It’s very simple.


I couldn’t help myself.


I’d see or read something that inspired infatuation or loathing and feel compelled to write about it.




I wonder.


Is it possible that I need to rethink my position on critics?


After all…


…if I’m one of them…


Perhaps I should start this piece over.


Begin again and remind the reader that Riggan Thompson is a Hollywood interloper and Tabitha Dickinson is right to despise him–that Birdman to the contrary, there are, in fact, some good critics.


There have even been a few great ones.


Take, for example, the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.


For decades (decades in which we still considered movies art as well as commerce), she served as the film community’s conscience.


We read her loyally, sometimes cheering her, sometimes hissing, but always provoked to serious thought about the medium she (and we) loved.


Love, in fact, was the key.


Everything she wrote—good, bad or indifferent—brilliant, misguided or outrageous—arose from her abiding love of cinema.


It was her review of Bonnie and Clyde, which many of her fellows had dismissed as a shameless exercise in unprecedented violence, that turned the critical tide in favor of the film and helped Warren Beatty talk Jack Warner into re-releasing this masterwork.


Or to offer a more personal example…


My friend and mentor, Lamont Johnson, directed a wonderful feature called The Last American Hero but quarreled with the then head of distribution at Fox, who recut the film and dumped it on the drive-in theatre circuit.


Kael, who loved it even in its butchered form, summoned Lamont to her New York apartment, and when she opened the door to his knock, the first words out of her mouth were “You, my friend, are being fucked!” She became a fierce advocate of both Hero and Lamont.


Even when she was wrong (and she often was—she hated Hitchcock and Fellini among many, many others), the opinions she offered us were part of her lover’s quarrel with the world of cinema.


It was not an accident that the title of her best-known book was I Lost It at the Movies.


She lost her heart to the movies, and it was an affair to remember, filled with dizzying highs and depressing lows, impetuous quarrels and passion-filled nights.


Her kind shall not pass this way again.


But there are those of us who share her motives if not her skills.




…if I should venture to criticize a movie or a book as I have occasionally done over the course of the last few months, be assured that it comes from my own love of the medium, be it literature or be it film.

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