Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Terminal Velocity (1984)

By 1984, my repertory company had already formed and was fully functioning. Since returning from France, I had made two films immediately back-to-back--Desert Center and Success--followed the following year by Fait Accompli. All three films featured Gérard Ismaël who came from France to live in the States at about the same time I returned from Paris. Gérard had starred in Just Jaeckin's The Last Romantic Lover with Dayle Haddon and Fernando Rey (Frog 1 from The French Connection and its sequel) and had worked with Claude Lelouch. Friends put us together. All three movies were shot, in part, on El Mirage which is a dry lake bed in the California desert where years earlier I had worked on the CBS TV movie Sole Survivor.

It wasn't until 1984 that I once again made the trek to El Mirage with a film crew. I intended it to be something akin to Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway and chose Terminal Velocity as the title. Those interested in drag racing know this term as referring to the speed at which a dragster is traveling as it crosses the finish line at the end of the quarter mile. I liked the literal speed reference but I also saw it as being a conceptual speed that kills as the events in the movie would be proceeding at a terminal pace for several of the characters.

Wanting something a bit racier for my film hero 'Carter' (played by Joel Hile who was a member of my repertory company) than the 1980 Corvette I was driving at the time, I went to my friend Matthew Ettinger who then had an interest in Street Rods, a dealership that specialized in some very hot cars. He offered me a burgundy Corvette convertible LT1 with ZR1 option. It had loads of horsepower and was extremely fast. A great screen car!

We traveled to the desert in a Winnebago which, given daytime temperatures exceeding 125 degrees Fahrenheit, was a blessing with it's air conditioning and other creature comforts. On the lake bed, it was so hot that the handkerchief I would drench with water and tie around my neck before leaving the motor home would be bone dry by the time I called 'Action' for the scene. At one point, the windshield of a Pontiac Tempest we were using shattered when actor Tom Hutchinson rolled onto the hood in a fight scene. The extreme desert heat had made it brittle. We spent half a day finding a replacement in a local junk yard and having it installed.

Back in Los Angeles, we added Swedish actress and artist Margareta Sjödin to the cast as the gang leader's wife. She visited as we were shooting a car chase in the underground parking of my apartment building. The sequence included multiple gun shots and a scene where one of the actors is being dragged by Tom Hutchinson's car as he is making his getaway. The combination of gun shots and squealing tires and related commotion set off numerous car alarms in the vicinity and attracted the attention of the building's landlord who took one look through the basement door and said, "Oh, it's you" and left us to ourselves.

From my apartment, we moved on to the, by then, deserted Tiny Naylors restaurant located at Sunset and La Brea where Tom smashed his car through a collection of shopping carts and other debris abandoned there before the restaurant could be demolished. The scene had him winding down from the violent action of the previous garage/shoot-out sequence and I suspect we were the last crew to film at that historic location as it was torn down days later.

We also shot in a downtown Los Angeles tenement house that would have fit nicely into Barbet Schroeder's Barfly. I'd knocked on a door of one of the tenants and asked if we could shoot a scene in their apartment and, inexplicably, they said yes. Thus, an hour later, Joel Hile barged through the door and fired off a full clip from his 9mm Browning (using blanks from Ellis Mercantile on La Brea) killing some poor character who had been hiding out in the apartment. It was the film's opening scene. Today, I would probably have taken pains to notify the neighbors that we would be shooting a scene with fake gunshots but those were different days and, besides, given the nature of the building and its tenants, I really didn't expect that shoot-outs were an uncommon occurrence.

When it came time to edit the movie, I made an appointment with the owner of a company in Burbank that rented editing equipment. When I was seated across from him, I spoke these words (as closely as I can recall them), "I have a proposition for you and there is no reason in the world for you to say yes, in fact, you should ask me to leave right now but here it is: I need to take one of your editing machines to a house in Thousand Oaks and keep it there for a long weekend while we edit my latest film which I need to deliver to my producer's rep ASAP. I have no credit nor references nor cash so all I can offer you is points and if that isn't the damnedest proposition you've ever gotten, I'd like to hear what was."

A moment or two of silence followed as the man exchanged looks with his assistant and then looked to me again to see if I was serious. I was. "What is the title of your film?" he asked. Terminal Velocity, I told him. He thought for a minute and said, "You've got a deal." Later that day, we were loading the equipment into a van.

When the film was completed, I sent out flyers to producer reps listed in a directory. These were companies that would attend the major film markets around the world selling films in various markets. Several responded to my flyer which included a rendering of the poster and a synopsis of the story. I did a deal with a fellow named Bob Katz who lived in Malibu. We didn't have name players in the cast but the title and poster did their work and soon Bob was making sales and delivering checks that rewarded our endeavors and made it possible for us to go on to the next film.

There's no business like show business...

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Matriarch DVD cover art

This is the DVD cover art for The Matriarch, a one-woman show I've written and directed starring Judy Go Wong which will appear on Amazon as a DVD and pay-per-view streaming video. Thank you to Louella Ladybug who is my go-to graphic artist in addition to being a very entertaining actress...

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Stranger: Coming Soon to Amazon Sreaming Video

The Stranger with Joy White coming soon to Amazon Streaming Video--the second in a series of one-man/one-woman shows I've written and directed...

Friday, January 1, 2016

Wayne Rogers, R.I.P.

Wayne Rogers, who is best known for playing Captain "Trapper" John McIntyre on the CBS television series M*A*S*H, has passed away. I remember seeing and enjoying the original M*A*S*H film by Robert Altman but for some reason I was never attracted to the television series though one could not help being aware of it and its impact. I just never watched it.

That didn't stop me from becoming aware of Wayne Rogers, however. From 1985 through 2001, I was producing my cable TV series (Interview). During that span of time, I made 500 half-hour segments of the show each of which presented a fictional interview with an author being interviewed about a book he or she had written concerning some amazing adventure or encounter in his or her life. The interviews looked and sounded real; a majority of viewers called wanting to know where they could find the book being featured having already failed to find it at their favorite book store. There were some who were already in on the joke and were seeking me out because they thought a particular story would make good material for a film or television series. One of these was Wayne Rogers though he never called or tried to made contact with me.

Over the years, I would receive a call from one producer or another with the following introduction: "Wayne Rogers gave me your phone number and said I should talk to you about an episode of (Interview) he'd seen on television last night." Following these initial phone calls, I would invariably messenger a VHS cassette to the producer in question and, subsequently, we would enter into negotiations for the rights to the original story I had created for the episode in question. I lost count of how many times this happened.

For a time, I wondered why Wayne never called me directly. Was he merely sharing the shows with friends of his he thought might make use of them, was he acting as a remote-control producer seeking to develop the stories via his delegates or was there some other explanation? I never found out but the calls kept coming until I stopped producing the show in 2001.

I never tried to make contact with Wayne Rogers and gratefully accepted the generous introductions he arranged for me without trying to insinuate myself into his life. Had he wanted to talk, as Robert Evans would say, I was only seven digits away. I'll always wonder about his motivation but what is clear to me is that Wayne Rogers was an extraordinary individual.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Coming soon to Amazon Streaming Video

Over the past months, I have been developing a concept and content for a television series consisting of one-man/one-woman shows that reveal characters at a turning point in their lives. They are uncommon figures and in each can be found elements of drama, comedy and pathos as they navigate their situations. In describing the show, I've said it is like my series (Interview) without the interviewer. This is a glimpse of the first in the series--The Matriarch with Judy Go Wong...

Monday, December 21, 2015

How to do a sex scene (and other branded actions) for the screen

Everything you do on screen sends a message about you, the story and other things as well so it is best that an actor understand the impact of his or her actions--nothing should be random or arbitrary.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bleeder and Bates at Good Neighbors

One of the many things I like about Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels is that Harry knows all the cool places in Los Angeles and especially the great places to stop in for lunch or dinner. As a native of Los Angeles, Philippe's, Musso & Frank, the Pacific Dining Car, Dusty's The Pantry, Roscoe's and the like are familiar territory.

I like to insinuate these shared favorites into my films and Philippe's French Dip Sandwiches was seen in Fait Accompli, Pierre's Los Feliz Inn was featured in Dead Right and in Bleeder and Bates we see the Pacific Dining Car restaurant and Good Neighbors, a breakfast and lunch restaurant where I could often be found enjoying polish sausage and eggs for breakfast.

This scene from Bleeder and Bates takes place in Good Neighbors and follows on the death of Jimmy Beacon and the squad's investigation of the crime scene. They've been up all night and are having breakfast before launching into their investigative tasks. I wanted to show these guys as friends who know how to push Bates' buttons and get away with doing a minimized amount of work. I put it in early in the story and it is one of the few intentionally light moments in the movie.

Once again, apologies for the time-coded work print.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dead Right: Ending

The pay-off scene in my film Dead Right was filmed on another day in someone’s home. On the screen, we see Greg Brown's character giving his acceptance speech having won the election for Attorney General with the obligatory American flags and camera flashbulbs creating the appropriate atmosphere of celebration. The news anchor voice-over was performed by Remi Martel.

As Greg continues his speech, the camera pans one hundred twenty degrees to see Matthew in a tight medium shot watching the speech intently as he smokes his ubiquitous Cohiba cigar. His reaction is hard to read. A beat later, Greg (who had been hidden from our view) leans forward to reveal that he had been sitting next to Matthew all along. For the first time we see Greg smoking a cigar to underscore the complicity between the two men. It becomes clear in this moment that all of the havoc and mayhem we have witnessed in the film had been planned by Matthew’s character for the sole purpose of getting Greg’s character elected on an anti-crime platform.

From the pay-off scene we cut to the last shot of the film, the pull-away from the two dead undercover cops in the desert holding on the shot until they are but a speck on the horizon and of no consequence.

In my film school,I taught writers that the function of an ending is to give the audience a sense of what the future would be for the characters after the film ended...

Friday, November 13, 2015

The French Chef

For years, I spent time enthralled in the Laemmle Theatres scattered around Los Angeles watching one French film after another absorbing the cinema culture of that country from its top filmmakers--Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Melville, Audiard, Becker, Costa-Gavras, Malle, Tavernier, Beiniex, Bier, de Broca, Sautet, Chabrol, Leconte, Clouzot, Lelouch and Veber among others.

When I finally decided it was now or never with regard to beginning my own adventure in filmmaking, I hopped a plane for Paris knowing full well that I was not seeking a conventional film career and was eager to have the experiences that an unorthodox approach would provide. I expected to stay in Paris for two weeks. I stayed two years during which I made my first film Montmartre and some months later, The French Chef, a TV pilot starring  French actor Philippe Léotard.

Philippe was my first and only choice for the project. He had charm, a warm personality and a bemused countenance that made you smile. I had seen him in Le chat et la souris (Cat and Mouse) directed by Claude Lelouch and in John Frankenheimer's French Connection II and it was the image of Philippe in his scenes with Serge Reggiani in the Lelouch film that first came to mind as I considered who I wanted for the role. We put an offer to Philippe's agent and the next day he was confirmed.

If nothing else, filmmaking is an exercise in problem solving and the first problem to be solved was the fact that Philippe spoke no English. The pilot was destined for the nascent cable TV market in America and subtitles were not an option; neither was dubbing the voice of an English speaking actor. As a result, Philippe learned his English text phonetically. This was made a bit more difficult for him as I had already adopted the habit of writing dialogue on the set or location while the crew was setting up the shot. So, there was Philippe standing across the street from Le Tour d'Argent restaurant with Notre Dame in the far background learning his speech while Parisian traffic flew past as though departing the grid in a Formula 1 race.

The second problem had an easier solution for us if, perhaps, not for Philippe. I wouldn't ordinarily write about this but it is a subject that Philippe himself confronted in his public writings. Bob Swaim broached the subject in his DVD commentary for his excellent film La Balance for which Philippe won the César Award for Best Actor, the French equivalent of an Oscar. Philippe liked to take a drink.

As the first day progressed, it became evident that Philippe was increasingly under the influence and this manifested in an unexpected manner--he became friendlier and more charming as the day wore on. The problem--for us anyway--was that we would not know where to find him when a set-up was ready as he had wandered off to a café in search of refreshment. I solved this by giving my partner's son the job of following Philippe around and reporting to me which café he had gone into so we would know where to fetch him when ready to shoot.

The second day of shooting found us in a kitchen where Philippe would be preparing a tantalizing recipe for our viewers. I had in mind an equally tantalizing assistant for him and, with this in mind, I turned to Alain Bernardin who was the proprietor of the Crazy Horse Saloon on the Avenue Georges V to ask if I could borrow one of his Crazy Horse showgirls to appear in the production as Philippe's assistant. I had just acquired the US cable TV rights to the Crazy Horse show and Alain was pleased to oblige. When I picked our showgirl up on the morning of her shoot, I thought there had been some mistake. The girl who got into my car was plain, dressed in a Pendleton shirt and jeans and was about as far from being a Parisian showgirl as one could imagine. On the way to the location, she talked of being a Jehovah's Witness and her plans to marry her fiance--also a Jehovah's Witness along with his family--who was in the States. I asked how being a showgirl at the Crazy Horse went down with the family. "Not too well," was all she said.

Nobody seemed to notice us when we arrived at the location--La Mère Catherine in Montmartre--but thirty minutes later when she came out of the powder room in full make up and hair not to mention a mind-stunning tube dress, all work came to a halt and my choice of 'assistant' was validated.

As I made the rounds in Los Angeles upon returning to the States, The French Chef was a great calling card. Everyone loved the show and thought it was very entertaining but no one knew what to do with a comedy/cooking/travelogue show hosted by a charming French movie star and a girl from the Crazy Horse Saloon. Interestingly, the first meeting I had was with Al Burton at Norman Lear's company. He wanted to know how I had gotten the rights to the Crazy Horse when he had been negotiating with Bernardin for them for months (!!).

I'll never forget Philippe. In spite of whatever problems he was facing personally, he made the production of The French Chef an entirely pleasurable experience and was a complete gentleman to us all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015