Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Marilynn Wales, Rest in Peace

Marilynn Wales passed away on Tuesday, September 16.

Marilynn and her husband Gary Wales had been friends of mine since I first met them back in 1967 when they invited me to their home for dinner. The dinner almost didn't take place as I parked the Lusso at the curb and went to the Wales' front door and knocked. I'll pause here for the laughter to subside from all those who have been to their house.

Somehow, I made it inside and we spent an enjoyable evening; a teenager, a stock broker and his wife who shared a passion for interesting cars and uncommon people. Over the years, we spent a lot of time together and there seemed to be one adventure after the other with no let up in the enthusiasm we all had for our chosen interests. Marilynn was a perfect match, not just for Gary but for his friends and lifestyle as well. In all the time I've known them, I never had the sense that Marilynn was anything less than a fully-committed car enthusiast and Gary's unrepentant co-conspirator in life. I was quite fond of her and the thought of Marilynn has always put a smile on my face.

To think of Gary is to think of Marilynn as, to me, they are inseparable. Together, they have provided me a lifetime of memories--and then some...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My "French Connection" Lincoln Mk III

The other day, I was asked how many cars I've owned and the answer was 'too many to count'. Best known for my adventures with Ferraris, my first car was a series 1 Jaguar E-Type coupe and I've enjoyed other Jaguars over the years as well including a Mk IX sedan I acquired from my friend Gary Wales and a few XJ6 sedans that I thoroughly enjoyed. The Mercedes 450SEL I drove impressed me as being bullet-proof and very comfortable for the long, high-speed rides into the desert where I was shooting one film or another and the air conditioning kept me ice cold regardless of the 100+ temperatures the desert was inflicting upon us.

I bought a lot of cars overseas beginning when I was 16 or 17 buying older Bentleys in London and Maseratis in Milano. Traveling to places like Bromley, Surrey or Southampton and one especially memorable drive to Parma in Italy with Tom Meade to purchase a couple of Maserati Mistrals made the acquiring of these cars as exciting to me as owning them. It seemed that each transaction had a story to go with it that gave pleasure long after the car had passed to another. Also part of the package was driving these cars before they were picked up by the shippers--the Bentleys taking me around London in the 'Swinging 60s' and the Maseratis guiding me through what remained of Italian Neorealism in Milano.

I sold a few cars that required a particular sort of buyer or, to quote my father, "What you need for this one is a sap!" he would say without treading too heavily on the fact that I was the sap who bought it for resale. One of these was a terrible Chevrolet Corvair that, if memory serves, still had a bit of compression in one of its cylinders. In the morning when the engine was cold, you could hear gusts of wind escaping from the chambers as the engine cranked over and it was futile to think that the spark plugs would generate enough heat to cause the metal to expand sufficiently to seal the heads and the block. I was able to find a happy buyer for this amazing machine when I experienced a confluence of good luck.

The first bit of luck was that I discovered an aerosol spray at the auto parts store that was so explosive you couldn't use it within miles of a house that had central heating. This product one would spray into the carburetors standing as far back as my arm length would allow while my father would crank the engine over from the relative safety of the driver's seat. If you have ever seen the jumbo size of Aqua Net hairspray (available in gas station mini-marts everywhere) you have an idea about the size of the can I was using. Early morning starts usually required three of these. The gentleman who showed up at eight o'clock one morning as I was attempting to fire up the engine from cold was as impeccably dressed as any I had ever seen in Los Angeles and had uncommonly fine manners in addition. Also, he was drunk, which I count as my second bit of luck. He sat good-naturedly on a nearby fire hydrant as my father and I continued to crank our way through the second and third aerosol bottles of Ka-Boom or whatever it was called wondering if we would run out of the spray or battery power before the engine started.

I had parked the car at the top of a hill to facilitate the car's first morning steps, so to speak, believing as I did that the car would have to journey a ways before level ground should be attempted and especially eschewing anything that could be seen as an incline. My new found gentleman friend was delighted by the car and was soon pressing cash into my hand. I counted it and gave him back his change as he had overpaid in his excitement. It was then that he said he was buying the car for his ex-girlfriend; an astonishing admission that brought the proceedings to a halt. This really isn't the sort of car one buys for an ex-girlfriend, I told him. It was one thing for him to buy the car for himself after witnessing the morning start-up ritual but to pawn it of on a woman for whom he had cared was quite another. The more I tried to dissuade him, the more insistent he became about buying the car and, in the end, we concluded the transaction, which brings us to the third bit of luck. I don't think he was ever able to remember where he had purchased the car.

As a buyer, however, the most interesting purchase for me was when I bought a 1971 Lincoln Continental Mk III. I had wanted one ever since seeing William Friedkin's film The French Connection in which one is featured. By 1989, I finally decided to see if I could find one knowing that the odds were against me locating one that was in 'as new' condition and I wasn't wanting a car that needed a restoration or that had been poorly restored. When I found an ad for an example that sounded like what I wanted, I called and received the strangest phone interview I've ever received or given during a car purchase. "Why do you want a Mk III?" "What kinds of cars have you owned?" "How will you be using the car?" "Do you hand wash your cars?" I had the feeling that I was adopting a child rather than buying a car but I began to have an understanding of the seller. I asked him if I could come look at the car. He told me he would think about it and call me back. The next day, he did and I was given directions to his home.

I arrived to discover that this man kept his Mk III in a carpeted garage; the other family cars were relegated to the outdoors. There was nary a scratch on any of the paint or bright-work and the black leather interior was flawless. This car looked as though it had just been driven home from the Lincoln dealership! The mileage on the car was negligible given its eighteen years. He offered me the service history worksheets and receipts for inspection. I knew I would never find such a Mk III anywhere else. I had absolutely no leverage on this transaction whatsoever. What are you asking, was all I could say. I wanted this car. He looked at me and said, "I don't know." He promised to call me after he had thought it over and I left more than a little perplexed.

Later that day, the man called me and quoted a price that was about a third of what I had been expecting. I was flabbergasted. "I wasn't really going to sell the car," he told me "but I'll sell it to you because you are the right person for this car." I didn't question him on his reasoning or motives but I got over to his house in Woodland Hills just as fast as I could with cash. It was an unusual transaction, to say the least, and I realized how lucky I was to experience another transcending confluence of luck in an extraordinary automotive experience.

I believe I was the right person for that Mk III but I must admit that I'm glad the seller never saw his car on the poster of my film Dead Right in which the car was featured. Seen, as it is, on the dusty dry lake bed of El Mirage, the poor man would no doubt have suffered a heart attack.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The 'Audition Set' and how to do a cold reading


I created the 'Audition Set' protocol because, very often, an actor does not get to see the sides until he or she is in the room reading the scene as a cold reading. I wanted as much of the audition performance to be set, rehearsed and perfected even if the actor has yet to see the dialogue.

Therefore, what we create is four responsive reactions from the Action/ReAction technique that help define and demonstrate the actor and his or her brand that can be blended into any scene regardless of the dialogue. To underscore this point, I changed the dialogue sequence in this video creating different scenes but with the same series of pre-rehearsed reactions.  The dialogue and emotional reactions create a different 'back-story' each time and provide nuance and something unexpected in each performance that Maddie Howard delivers in this exercise video.

I create an 'Audition Set' tailored to the brand signature of each actor with whom I work via Skype. No two are the same and they are designed to highlight that which is special about the actor.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Confessions and the 'Lightfield' effect


There is quite a lot to be said for surrounding oneself with creative people. They provide an energy exchange and an atmosphere in which an irreverent and innovative approach to what has been standardized and sanctified is understood, encouraged and even admired. Imagine this reaction to a particular film that was released in 1960 by the non-creative element: But Monsieur Godard, you don't have any transition shots! Furthermore, you jump ahead in the middle of a take without so much as a cut-away!

Someone once responded to one of my screenplays by saying it was poorly written. I asked what she didn't like about it and she told me the margins weren't the correct width. I smiled realizing I was dealing with someone who was more concerned with the blank spaces surrounding the page than the content written on the page. Literally and conceptually, we weren't anywhere near the same page. Never mind that the feedback I was getting from the major production companies in town was that it was the most entertaining script they'd ever read; one even asked me to autograph the script for them. Anyone giving such importance to the empty white spaces on the page would never have understood what I had written and would have made a dog's breakfast of it had they ever gotten hold of it as a property.

One creative influence on me was an out-of-control young man who I found very entertaining and who went about making videos--short films of all sorts--using a Panasonic S-VHS video camera. His name is Lightfield Lewis and his personality is as distinct as his name. He came from a show business family (his father being Geoffrey and his sisters Juliette and Dierdre) but he seemed completely his own person and was capturing a unique vision of the world with his camera. Lightfield would come to my house and show me his latest footage and I, in turn, would expose him to films like
Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger.

One thing that caught my attention was a particular feature of Lightfield's camera; it was a Gain Up button that, when activated, altered the video image causing it to look less like video and more like a very grainy film stock that had been colorized in the fashion of Andy Warhol's poster of Marilyn Monroe which Warhol had made from silk screens based on a publicity photo from the film Niagara. I especially liked the evolution of references from digital to silk screen to film icon. I wanted to make use of this effect.

When shooting my web-based soap opera Confessions, I was delivering layers of truth and reality. There was the reality of the confessional booth and for that we used 'straight-ahead' video. Then there was the reality and relative truth of the confessions that were being revealed as flashback and composite shots featuring the in-the-booth reality combined with flashback. I decided to use the 'Lightfield' effect for the flashback and composite shots to differentiate them from the truth of the confessional encounter and to provide a dream-like illusion of the penitent's memory or fabrication.

I think the effect worked very well and gave an unusual visual texture to the program. The video seen here is a poor transfer taken from a VHS copy of the original and has lost some resolution along with much of the color's original vibrancy. I can't look at it without it bringing to mind the whole 'Lightfield, Warhol, Marilyn, Niagara' chain of events.

Friday, August 1, 2014

250 Ferrari California (ex Roger Vadim) in Paris


My friend Peter Helm had a couple of these back in the day. Imagine the California, my GTO and Matthew in the Ferrari Breadvan cruising around Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cyrano on the Sunset Strip

The celebrated bit of road known as the Sunset Strip has gone through a lot of changes since I first made its acquaintance by watching 77 Sunset Strip on television and having customary Sunday brunch with the family at Scandia or occasionally reserving Scandia's wine cellar for exclusive dinner parties where one is attended by staff separate from the service in the restaurant upstairs. In the mid-to-late 60s, I visited the Strip on weekends--cruising night--in my Ferrari GTO and spent afternoons having (pre-Starbucks) cappuccinos at the Via Veneto hanging out with friends and people-watching--much as I do at Caffe Primo today--and using the Ferrari Breadvan and GTO with Matthew Ettinger to maximum effect, if you can imagine. Gazzarri's would later be memorialized in John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie where it was seen as The Crazy Horse West. Nicky Blair's still occupied a spot near Sunset Plaza Drive and Dino's Lodge, featuring the likeness of Dean Martin on the front of the restaurant, was a going concern. Long before it disappeared to be replaced, ultimately, as my favorite Strip restaurant by Le Petit Four (where I filmed my 'talking heads' for Elysée Wednesday: Drive!), my dining room on the Strip was Cyrano.

The elegant, mahogany paneled brasserie with low-key lighting offered delicious, continental food and the service was excellent. I always had the same waiter who, given his accent, might have been French, more likely he was Belgian but--if you are a betting man or woman--you would put your money on the probability of his being from Nebraska. He was very attentive and knew our preferences. More often than not, he could place our order without being told what we wanted. Furthermore, he never told us "Enjoy" which is one of the characteristics of a truly great waiter, if I may say so.

Gio, which everyone seemed to pronounce as 'Gee-oo' rather than the correct 'Jo', was the maître d' who knew a thing or two about the restaurant business and hospitality. Many was the time that I arrived at the peak of their busy hour--alone or in company with friends--finding myself behind a crowd of people at the door waiting for a table. Gio would see me and motion us in through the crowd seating us immediatamente. There's no place like home!

Evenings at Cyrano were memorable for the food, the service and the company. I remember one evening conversing with Matthew Ettinger and Warren Oates at the bar. You would think we would be talking about movies but it was more of a philosophical discussion and I'm not sure any of us knew what we were talking about, which made it no less memorable.

If one were to ask me what made Cyrano particularly special, I would have to say that, whenever I dined there with Matthew, it was always a contest to stick the other with the bill. I don't know that either of us kept score but we were well matched as competitors in this game. Since we both knew what was coming, the point was to make our escape in a manner that was unpredictable.

I believe I scored the last shot before Cyrano finally closed. Matthew and I were having dinner with our girlfriends and as the meal was winding down, I advised Judy, my girlfriend at the time, to excuse herself as though she were headed for the powder room and wait for me in the car. A moment or two later, I made the same move but not before letting the waiter know in an aside that it was Matthew's birthday and would he please bring a cake with candles.

Matthew was making his own plan to sneak out with his girlfriend before Judy and I returned to the table but before he could make good his escape, he was met with several waiters singing Happy Birthday and expecting him to blow out the candles. By this time, I was down the road wondering where to go for desert. My car phone buzzed (pre-cellphone) and I confirmed Matthew's suspicions and thanked him for the meal. Let it be said, though, that Matthew gave as good as he got...

There are all sorts of attributes that make a restaurant special. Cyrano had them all.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Pearblossom Highway: Hockney's and my own

I came across David Hockney's iconic photo-collage Pearblossom Highway the other day and realized that this particular work and the intersection it interprets is as iconic for a period of my film career and personal quest as it is for the artist's idiosyncratic creativity which he refers to as "drawing with a camera".

Back from Paris where I had established myself as a writer, producer and director, I found myself making one movie after another being lucky enough to have investors who wanted to return for second or third projects in which I employed my unusual style of guerrilla filmmaking with my troupe of actors writing the scripts as I went along. There were a few 'signature elements' to all of my productions at the time--shooting in out-of-town locations and including places like Las Vegas and Mexico for their poster value--but none more significant than Pearblossom Highway in making these films what they were.

The intersection that Hockney depicts is the final, definitive turn into the desert leaving any semblance of civilization behind and taking one through a series of small crossroads towns like Little Rock, Llano, Pearblossom and, finally, onto El Mirage, the dry lake bed I first visited when I worked on the CBS movie for television Sole Survivor in my teens. Making the right-hand turn at the stop sign that is the focal point of Hockney's piece transports one into a Twilight Zone of a sort and it is quickly understood that the conventions and realities of life as it is lived in Los Angeles--or any other place, for that matter--have been left behind. What better place to make a movie?

The desert people aren't like you and me. They live something of a remote, sun-baked, frontier life and are content to let you have your freedom as long as it doesn't impose on their own. Whether or not they realize it, they live per the common law where there is no such thing as a victimless crime but Heaven help you if you cause them an injury. We injured no one and they left us to make our films even pitching in to help out on occasion.

When we weren't filming on the dry lake bed, we would find local establishments along Pearblosom Highway and, without fail, we were allowed to shoot in those establishments by simply ordering lunch or dinner if it was a restaurant or drinks in the local pool hall. Desert Center, Success, Terminal Velocity, Double Cross, Dead Right and Two the Hard Way were films that benefited from the accommodations offered by the desert and the particular mood it imparts to visual story telling.

Below, I have included an interview wherein David Hockney talks about his work, Pearblossom Highway.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ferrari 250GTO at the 1000km of Paris (1962)

The poster seen here is an advertisement by BP celebrating the victory (in its first outing) of Ferrari GTO #3987 in the 1962 1000km of Paris held at the Montlhéry Autodrome. The drivers were the famous brothers Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez from Mexico. The pair claimed pole position in qualifying and finished first overall and first in class in the race winning by a one lap margin. The car was entered by Luigi Chinetti's N.A.R.T.(North American Racing Team).

This was an auspicious beginning for one of the GTOs that seemed to own the racing world in its day winning the International Championship for GT Manufacturers in 1962, 1963 and 1964. 3987 was one of nine GTOs on the starting grid at Montlhéry that included fifty-three starters amongst them the extraordinary Ferrari Breadvan driven by Ludovico Scarfiotti and Colin Davis entered by Scuderia SSS Repubblica di Venezia. The Breadvan started from the 15th position on the grid and finished third, two laps behind GTO 3987.

Years later, my best friend Matthew Ettinger owned the Breadvan while I owned GTO 3987 and though their official racing days had passed, their unofficial racing days were in full swing as Matthew and I made full use of their performance on a daily basis. Having driven both of these exquisite cars, I can sum them both up by saying that both seemed to have been made to fit my needs perfectly. I can't think of any other car about which I can say this without reservation. I'm sure that I am not the only one to have had this reaction after taking a turn at the wheel.

This is what the cars looked like when Matthew and I owned them...

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Action/ReAction for singers

Having developed the Action/ReAction technique over twenty-plus years, I have seen it grow and evolve into a highly technical approach with component parts each with their own specific function and purpose. I have applied the technique to actors, of course, and to businessmen whose careers relied on being able to resonate constituent groups amongst the audience for their public proclamations. I have generally avoided politicians and lawyers in this regard though I would make an exception for a notable few.

In the process of getting my students to think of themselves as singer/dancers rather than actors or public speakers, I have never actually instructed the technique to singers advising that they think of themselves as an actor--until now.

The student in question needed no help whatsoever with music--vocal or instrumental--as he has that down and is very talented. What I started with, as I do with any student, is the brand and how he wanted the public to perceive him as an artist. We discussed the personal brands of well known artists as examples of how a brand can manifest for a musician. It took only a few minutes for this to become obvious and helped to formulate his own personal brand. He now understands that the DNA of his brand must be evident in every public offering whether a song, a photograph, a PR interview, a personal appearance or blog post.

From there, we moved into a discussion of the technique itself. As a singer, he was already accustomed to singing his songs in phrases, so we moved into emphasis and then broached the subject of interstitial reactions. He had never heard of the concept but quickly understood why they are important in resonating the various groups that comprise an audience--after all, growing a fan base is as important to a singer as it is to an actor.

This was only the first session with him but he took to it easily and it underscored for me how the technique, though designed for actors, has relevance to any form of communication.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Audiences remember what they didn't expect to see...

One of the more interesting restaurants I've enjoyed over the years was located in Paris though the one I am thinking of was not any of those that 'auditioned' their specialties to my partner and me when we were preparing The French Chef, as delectable as they were. In my Skype sessions, I tell actors that audiences remember what they didn't expect to see. This serves as a reminder that a performance should avoid predictability and present something new and nuanced that becomes memorable rather than banal. This also applies to restaurants.

When I was shooting Point of Departure, I filmed in some of my favorite cities--Paris, Cannes, Milan, Venice and (though it is not a city, but feels like one) Monaco. The film was shot 'guerilla-style' filming where ever I saw interesting locations and using the celebrated French Système D to get things that ordinarily weren't on offer or easily acquired. My dinner conversations with Jean Collomb and reading William Friedkin's The Friedkin Connection informs me that Claude Lelouch and William Friedkin use the same method in spite of the fact of having larger budgets. If there is a cinematic syntax in what a filmmaker puts on the screen, perhaps there is also a cinematic language in the way he or she shoots the footage.

In any case, I found myself shooting a variety of locations around Paris revisiting Montmartre where I made The French Chef and my earlier film Montmartre. I shot footage in the Cimetière Montmartre where the graves of Edgar Degas, Jacques Offenbach, Heinrich Heine, Hector Berlioz, Nijinsky, Stendhal, Francois Truffaut and Emile Zola can be found wherein my leading lady visits the grave site of someone dear to her--this as the taxi driver is waiting to take us to the airport (!!).

Our base was the hotel Georges V where I shot scenes in the suite and made daily trips to various parts of Paris at various times of the day or night to get interesting backdrops for the action. I remember sitting late at night in the middle of the  Champs-Élysées with cars passing on either side of me as I filmed the leading lady crossing the grand avenue with the lighted Arc de Triomphe behind her. On another occasion, I took two actors on the spur of the moment and booked us onto the high-speed train from Paris to Montpellier where I shot scenes with them in the first class compartment on the train and later in the station at Montpellier working these locations into the story of a woman on a quest to find her missing husband.

Trains and train stations figured largely in the story of our heroine's search. I shot in the magnificent cathedral that is the Stazione Centrale di Milano originally built in 1864, remembering as I was filming our scenes a bit of real-life drama that my father and I had witnessed there at four in the morning decades earlier. It was at a train station in Paris that I experienced the unexpected, however.

The Gare de Lyon was built for the World Exposition of 1900 and its architecture has not been modernized featuring a clock tower reminiscent of the famous London tower that houses Big Ben. It was there that, after shooting the scenes of my actors in, on and around the trains, I discovered something extraordinary. Le Train Bleu restaurant.

Imagine a plush and ornate restaurant from the Belle Epoque looking as though it belonged in a world class hotel or chateau rather than a train station. It brought forth images from Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Not only did I want to shoot in this amazing restaurant, I wanted to dine there as well. So, we did. One of the actors received a phone call beckoning him to some emergency that required his attention, so I had the leading lady order a most sumptuous dessert as only the French can make and filmed her as she ate it slowly, in the hope that her husband would join her. In the story, they had already missed their first connection and this, I decided, would be the fall-back rendezvous. As she slowly ate this incredible pastry and sipped her tea served in what looked like fine bone china, the hope of his coming to meet her begins to fade and, without a word spoken, she has descended into the despair of knowing that she is likely never to see him again.

Though unforeseen and unplanned, the scene in Le Train Bleu was pivotal to the film, as it was the heroine's rejection of the emotion that came over her as she sat alone at her table that drove her actions for the rest of the picture. Not only did I get a good scene for my movie, I had an excellent meal in the bargain--this thanks to my saying to my actors, "Wait here while I see what's upstairs."

I wasn't expecting to see such a lavish establishment in a train station which made it all the more memorable.