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RUTHLESS PEOPLE

February 18th, 2015 3 Comments

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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.

 

Shock.

 

Devastation.

 

Horror.

 

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

 

Why?

 

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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3 thoughts on “RUTHLESS PEOPLE

  1. Mary D

    http://youtu.be/3rQuRLERl6A

    A while back my husband and I saw a movie called “Hitchcock”. It was about Alfred Hitchcock and how he made the movie “Psycho”. Now, according to this movie when the shower scene arrived he was not happy with Janet Leigh’s performance. So, he took the knife and pretended to stab her. However, he used such force that he actually frightened her getting the performance he wanted. By the way, Anthony Hopkins was excellent in the role of Alfred Hitchcock.

    Another incident with a different director involved a TV show. The show was “Lassie.” Jon Provost who played the kid at the time told a story of how when they wanted him to cry the director would ask one of the stage hands to get his puppy. Then he would tell Jon that he was going to kill his puppy. Of course this made him cry. I thought that was an awful thing to do to a child.

    Reply
    1. Dan Bronson Post author

      I have friend who was on the set of PSYCHO during the filming of the shower sequence. He has no recollection of Hitchcock terrorizing Janet Leigh to get her performance nor have I found anything about it in any of the several biographies I’ve read. Sounds as if the screenwriter needed some drama, and when the facts didn’t supply it, he made this incident up. I don’t know about the Jon Provost story. Hope it’s not true. He was a distant neighbor of mine, growing up in Pomona at the same time I did. Always heard he was a nice kid.

      Reply
      1. Mary D

        I have to go record and correct myself. It seems that it was Jackie Cooper who was threatened with the lose of his dog. He even wrote a book called “Please don’t shoot my Dog”. I have no idea why I thought it was Jon Provost. Right story, wrong child actor.
        More creepy director stories are below.
        Creepy

        Dustin Koski July 18, 2013

        Usually when people describe “horror stories” from a film set, they mean that there was a scheduling problem, a lot of arguing on set, or perhaps a mechanical malfunction. But sometimes it goes much farther than that. Sometimes things happen that seem suitable for what we’d consider a literal horror story. And though many items on this list are the stuff of film urban legends, they happen to be true.
        10Dau

        dau

        Dau was, as of 2011, a project that had broken down in a sense, though that’s not to say filming stopped. What happened instead was director Ilya Khrzhanovsky turned this intended film tribute to Nobel-Prize winner Lev Landau into an insanely over-immersive act of “method” cultism. The cast and crew were required to dress in mid-20th-century Russian clothing to match the time period of the film; they weren’t allowed to have cell phones or anything else so modern. Food had to be in cans from the era and all documents and passes typewritten. Anyone who so much as mentioned aspects of the modern world or left the set without permission was fined. That one person should exert that much power for something so clearly unnecessary is, as the director himself said, “pure delirium.” And this was under circumstances where people had to do the same torturously repetitive tasks until—when they were fired—some of them described it as being akin to a “prison experiment.”

        9Eraserhead

        eraserhead

        Eraserhead is well known for being enigmatic and creepy. It’s a story of a loser everyman (Henry Spencer) in a bizarre setting who experiences strange visions while fathering an even stranger child that doesn’t look remotely human. But it’s what you might expect from David Lynch if you’ve heard anything about him and much milder than you’d expect after you hear the sorts of things he was up to behind the scenes.

        For example, he refused to talk about how the effect of the baby was done decades afterward (nor did he allow others to talk about it). Given the appearance of the object, the budget, the skin textures, and the fact it’s so articulated that its eyes will close vertically, the leading theory is that it’s a preserved calf fetus.

        The idea that Lynch wired a corpse to bring it to life is well supported by something he did for fun that he put in an ultimately deleted scene. He asked a vet to provide him with a dead cat (on the promise it wouldn’t be recognizable on film) then cut it open and found the colors quite vivid. Then he put the cat in a pit of tar and left it there for a year until he could have a scene where Henry’s shoe catches on a cord connected to the cat. It’s enough to make you think Lynch started making movies to justify all the eccentric stuff he’d be doing anyway.

        Noah

        HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS Ð PART 2

        Celebrity stalkers are nothing new. But one that went after Emma Watson during the shoot for Noah was more aggressive than most. During the shoot, Emma Watson decided to go off in the woods near the location of the shoot. While she was there, a stalker that she recognized from outside her home appeared. Members of the crew intervened, and while Watson was uninjured and did not press charges, those involved with the shoot described how it put a pall over everything. The decision not to press charges is somewhat questionable in light of the encouragement this might provide other stalkers.
        7 Skippy

        skippy

        A 1931 Best Picture nominee, this film features a scene where child star Jackie Cooper was required to cry. Director Norman Taurag came to the conclusion that genuine emotion was required for the scene. He had a stagehand take Cooper’s pet dog out behind the studio and pretend to shoot it. Even though it was revealed after they got the take that the dog was okay (and his performance was nominated for Best Actor), the event made such an impact on Cooper that he entitled his autobiography Please Don’t Shoot My Dog! Picture nominee, this film features a scene where child star Jackie Cooper was required to cry. Director Norman Taurag came to the conclusion that genuine emotion was required for the scene. He had a stagehand take Cooper’s pet dog out behind the studio and pretend to shoot it. Even though it was revealed after they got the take that the dog was okay (and his performance was nominated for Best Actor), the event made such an impact on Cooper that he entitled his autobiography Please Don’t Shoot My Dog!

        Reply

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