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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mulholland, fast cars and film

My first film adventures on Mulholland were with Peter Helm having fun with our Ferraris for the camera. A week wouldn't go by without me racing one of my cars along this famed stretch of road and the canyons running across the Santa Monica Mountains. In the late 80s, while making Bleeder and Bates, I again combined film and high speed using a Martini-liveried Porsche Turbo and its owner actor Laurent Khaiat.

In the movie, Laurent plays a French hustler who hears a bit of gossip from his call girl girlfriend (Tami Lunt) and while speeding along Mulholland, conceives a plan to turn the police interest to his advantage. Before climbing into the Porsche, we see Laurent on the banquette at L'Express where, for years, members of my repertory company would meet for coffee every Tuesday morning and we would be joined by viewers who had seen our shows on television or film business personalities with whom we were making deals.

In the scene that follows this clip, Kip Parrott in the role of a homicide detective rides as a passenger in the Porsche with Laurent. Being the owner of a pristine Corvette at the time, Kip was not exactly a stranger to fast cars. I quote from a note Kip sent to me for my book How to Shoot a Feature Film in 15 Days (And Survive to See Profits).


If you stop and think about just how many different projects we were working on, many at the same time, it is amazing what we pulled off. Stealing scenes in restaurants, bars, homes, motels, and even in some old warehouses down close to the railroad station, which was spooky enough just attempting to find the location where you were shooting the scenes.

The car chase scenes and trick driving by some of the fellow actors and stunt people--and, one last memory was riding in the French guy’s extremely quick Porsche 911, in the rain, at speed--scared the hell out of me. What the..? But it was all too exciting!

I am not sure which movie it was, but I was constantly amazed at the many different locations you found.

Loved every minute of it, and will savor the memories, as I will with your book when it’s published.

Write on my friend.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Series of ONE (theme)

Needing a theme for A series of ONE, I turned to Michael Chanslor who has created a number of musical themes for my projects over the years. I wanted music that could serve for comedy or drama since these one-man/one-woman shows range in tone from the light, absurdist comedy of The Matriarch with Judy Go Wong to the darkly sinister The Stranger with Joy White. My preference was for an upbeat jazz piece with a hint at irony and a touch of 'Charlie Rose' in feeling. I got just what I wanted.

Thank you, Michael!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Cine Paris logo

I made my first film in Paris, France after spending years immersed in the academic and practical study of filmmaking. I studied cinematography with Peter Gibbons who was head of the camera department at CBS Cinema Center in Studio City and editing and sound recording/mixing with Elliott Bliss who was head of the sound department at the same studio. Elliott later took over the camera department when Peter retired. All the while, I was practically living on film and television sets and locations. I watched episodic director Paul Stanley's every move on shows like Mission: Impossible, Medical Center, The Road West, Then Came Bronson and T.H.E. Cat, among others.

I also worked on a number of films and shows that provided me with some real-world experience and close up glimpses of major Hollywood icons at work--Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Josh Logan, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Wagner, Gene Kelly, Barbra Streisand, Dean Martin, Sharon Tate, Richard Basehart, William Shatner, Vince Evans, Lou Antonio, Ryan O'Neal, Barbara Parkins and Mia Farrow. The one time I worked on Mission: Impossible (as opposed to observing Paul Stanley), was in an episode directed by Bob Gist who directed so many episodes of Peter Gunn. That's a story for another time of significance only to me and (actor/composer/musician) Michael Chanslor possibly.

A week wouldn't go by that I didn't see three or four films that were outstanding in some respect, usually at one of the Laemmle Theaters or at the Nuart or Fox theaters but sometimes as re-runs on television. These outlets were the forerunner of home video in that the films they presented had earned cult or classic status and the people who one saw in attendance were devoted cinephiles. The movies we saw there are now staples on DVD and Netflix--Lawrence of Arabia, Sunset Boulevard, A Touch of Larceny, Dr. Strangelove, All About Eve, The Flight of the Phoenix, Casablanca, L'Avventura, À bout de souffle, Run Silent Run Deep, My Fair Lady, Persona, La nuit américaine, Soldier in the Rain, The Hustler.

I went to Paris to reconnoiter for two weeks and stayed two years filming Montmartre and my television pilot The French Chef with Philippe Léotard during that time. I wanted a name for the activity and Cine Paris came immediately to mind; it described the activity and the location. Some years later back in Los Angeles, my brother-in-law at the time, Scott Mednick, graciously offered to design a logo for me. Scott was one of the foremost logo designers and his work would be familiar to anyone paying attention in those days. When it became customary for film companies to show their logos in the opening credits, I wanted to add sound to the graphic image that would appear.

There was no question about the sound I wanted--it had to be a symphony orchestra playing the A above middle C, which I am pleased to say has been the French tuning standard since the 1860s (if Wikipedia is to be believed). I wanted to take all that had inspired me to make films--the French Nouvelle Vague, the Italian Neorealism movement, film noir--and have it be reflected in the film or project I was presenting, however experimental it might be, and alert the audience that what follows might include unexpected influences and references. I thought it would be consistent with my style of filmmaking wherein what is implied is of greater importance than what is said.

My thanks go to Kevin Courtright who was an actor/ writer/director member of my repertory company for fifteen years and who suggested I write this post and to my son Sean who recreated the clip as the only version I had was third generation lacking resolution and sporting time code. Thanks also to Louella Ladybug for recreating the graphic used in the clip. It will be featured in the opening credits of A Series of ONE episodes.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bleeder & Bates: Elliptical storytelling via implication and juxtaposition

The process of making a film is as important to me as the content of the film. Every time I make of movie, it is something of an experimental exercise (the title of Blake Edward's 1962 film Experiment in Terror leaps to mind). Most filmmakers start with a script, cast it and shoot it wanting to bring the script's vision to the screen. I am more like an artist painting a model he has placed in a particular setting.

I start with the actors and, knowing the theme of the story I want to tell (and very few of the story events), I begin shooting scenes. I've made my films using actors from my repertory company whose 'signature' or brand I had established and whom I had trained in my Action/ReAction technique. Thus, we were well acquainted. My process was to arrive at a location and as the crew set up, I would dictate the dialogue to the actors who would note it and rehearse among themselves until they were ready to run it for me. I might give them a note or two and then I would shoot it. In this manner, the 'script' was created as we shot the movie.

Films aren't customarily shot in sequence and I might start the production by shooting a scene that would be part of the third act. Given the theme and the characters I'd chosen for the production, I knew the sort of scenes I would need to tell the story and as I wrote each new scene, I was aware of where it would be placed in the story's 'Paradigm' (with grateful thanks to Syd Field). This understanding allowed me to know if it was introductory, part of the rising action or something leading us to the resolution or climax.

My preference in storytelling is to imply rather than declare what is going on and you could describe my style as elliptical. I like the audience to draw inferences from what they've seen and come to their own conclusions; I write for an audience that likes to decode that which they've seen going against the old maxim of 'Tell your audience what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them' style of filmmaking.

In the sequence I've posted here, one can witness the elliptical and implied nature of Bleeder & Bates. We meet the enigmatic artist (Hal Singleton) and his girlfriend/model (Jeanine Anderson) in a scene without introduction but an implied sense of tension and foreboding. We then move on to the coffee room at L.A.P.D. where Bates (Gregory Brown) is getting himself a coffee but is 'buttonholed' by another detective (I don't remember her name but will edit my blog post to include it when these visual transcriptions reach the end credits). From the nature of her reactions, we perceive she has intentions towards Bates that, for whatever reasons, aren't reciprocated. We can see he doesn't want to stay but politeness keeps him from leaving immediately. Nothing revealing is said; much is implied. Before a conversation can develop, Bates is called away to his relief and her frustration.

Del (Kip Parrott) gives Bates a tipster's letter that will send him on his way to meet the artist. But first...

Detective Carbone (Jack Caputo) is told by an L.A.P.D. employee (Anita Wilson) that a high echelon commander wants to take him to lunch. His reaction tells us how out of the ordinary this is and, further, that he does not relish attention from the high command. Lunch, at the Pacific Dining Car restaurant on 6th Street in Los Angeles, follows this scene and the undercurrent of tension and mistrust is palpable yet unexplained. All we learn is that Commander Rogers (Joe Filbeck) wants Carbone to take Bates to lunch. Then we move on to...

Bates arrives at the artist's loft in the warehouse district of Los Angeles. As he enters and inspects the paintings that are of a dark and macabre nature like the artist himself, the tone is set for what is to follow. The clues provided by the artist will set Bates on the wrong path but will, ironically, be the key to the mystery of Bleeder's murder. Halfway through the conversation, Bates is surprised by the appearance of the girlfriend/model whose presence he hadn't suspected. The ending of this scene reveals that she has an agenda of her own though we don't yet know what it might be.

It took me about nine months to make Bleeder & Bates shooting about two days a week. I kept an outline of the story as I filmed it which allowed me to see where the gaps were that needed filing. Some gaps I intentionally left blank trusting the audience to fill them in on their own. The juxtaposition of one scene with another often served to create a complete thought that the individual scenes were not intended to convey.

This is not the sort of screenwriting or filmmaking technique that would ordinarily be found in a film school curriculum but, back in the day, people from all over the world came to me in Los Angeles to learn this method of making movies at my somewhat unorthodox film school.

[Sequence digitized from VHS copy of time-coded workprint]

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bleeder & Bates: The medical examiner

Early in the investigation, Detective Bates has a conversation with the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Jimmy Beacon. She is played by Stephanie Burnham who was a member of my repertory company for film and television. Stephanie also wrote and directed for the group and joined a few of us in judging for the CableACE Awards in the 90s before they folded into the Emmys.

In this scene, I wanted a serious tone but felt the need to inject a bit of gallows humor and convey a slightly unexpected aspect of the medical examiner's character. It was my practice to create roles based on the actor's 'signature' or brand that could serve as the basis for leads in their own features as opposed to being peripheral characters to advance the story; each with an undercurrent of emotion and agenda and backstory implied by emotional reactions not entirely explained by the action and dialogue.

The quick tag line for my films would be ‘Thinking man’s cop dramas’ along the lines of the French films Shoot the Piano Player or Without Apparent Motive and Du rififi chez les hommes. I am greatly influenced by film noir.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Bleeder & Bates: Opening sequence

This is the opening sequence taken from a time-coded work print that recently surfaced of my movie Bleeder & Bates which I shot in 1989. The story tells of an investigation into the murder of a down-and-out prize fighter that leads Detective Bates into a Machiavellian game of survival where nothing is what it appears to be.

At the premiere of Bleeder & Bates, which was held at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, actor Allen Garfield said that 'Bleeder' reminded him of Wim Wender's The State of Things in which he played 'Gordon' the producer.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dead Right

This is a scene where Jimmy finds himself at the end of his rope. Ordinarily, I never let an actor rack a round in a scene unless he or she has just loaded a new clip but I thought it fitting that a man soon to meet his maker would be sitting around the house with an empty chamber. Here Jimmy utters his last words...

Thursday, October 1, 2015

My Most Unusual Encounter With An Actor

One day in the mid-80s, I received a visit from a man wanting to join my repertory company for film and television. He had never acted before, and after perusing what was on offer in the local trade papers, had come to the conclusion that what I was offering gave him the best shot of establishing himself as an actor. Not only were we training actors, we were producing projects for them as vehicles, all the while marketing them to mainstream Hollywood. This gentleman liked 'sure things' and didn't want to mess around with people who would lead him down the garden path. When he voiced this sentiment to me, I did not take it lightly.

After we talked for about twenty minutes, the man said he was ready to start immediately, and thus we began the normal protocol for a new member. I asked him to go to a Blockbuster video store and make a list of twenty-five movies he found there that he liked and could see himself working in as an actor (given his look, style and personality). In those days, there was no Internet and this was the easiest access to a database of titles. I told him to note who had directed each of the films on his list as those names would form the core target public of his future marketing campaign.

I then gave him the title of the first book on a reading list that I had created for my actors. There is so much misinformation on how Hollywood functions that I wanted our members to get an accurate look at the business from those operating at the top of the spectrum. In those days, the first book was Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists by Steven Bach. Today, I ask them to read The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life by Robert Evans.

We then turned to the subject of his ‘signature’, the word I used then since the concept of brand had yet to develop in acting circles. Here, I knew, we were treading on thin ice. I’ve always had a knack for being able to articulate an individual’s signature or brand very quickly—often before words were even exchanged between us. In this gentleman’s case, I had understood his brand before he even reached my door. It was distinct and indelible.

I had watched him through the front window as he carefully parked his brand new black Cadillac, which had been ordered with the optional gold trim package, at the curb. He emerged from it wearing an impeccable, double-breasted suit that I recognized as tailor-made as opposed to the store-bought variety. His tie was silk, as was his pocket square. His shoes were Gucci lace-up as opposed to the popular loafer variety. All of this went well with his salt and pepper hair and the steely look in his eyes. He spoke in a voice reminiscent of George Raft. Perhaps you see where this is going.

I explained to him that all the stars of Hollywood through the ages had signatures or personal brands that appealed to audiences and assured them of longer careers. I went on to say that it was my habit to ask a new client about his or her background but that in this instance, I didn’t feel it was necessary. I simply asked what led him to acting as a career choice. He smiled.

“When I was young, Jack Dragna got me a job sweeping floors in a barbershop.”

Jack Dragna, for those not up on their history of Los Angeles, was a bootlegger in California during Prohibition. In the early 30s, he became the boss of the Los Angeles crime family after Joseph Ardizzone disappeared ‘mysteriously’. Earl Warren--best known today for heading the commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy--referred to Mr. Dragna as the “Al Capone of Los Angeles”.

Though Jack Dragna died in 1956, his brother Tom and Tom’s son Louis Tom Dragna carried on in the family enterprise and the newest member of my repertory company carried on with them, having left his broom and the barbershop well behind him. Tom Dragna is said to have planned the unsuccessful attempts on the life of Mickey Cohen--another prominent mob figure in Los Angeles. Familiar with the use of dynamite, he planted two bombs in Cohen's home--one didn't go off, the other did but failed to kill Cohen.

Tom Dragna passed away in 1977, and his son Louis retired from his Los Angeles crime family activities in the early 80s. As my new friend and I talked so amiably together about the Dragnas, the year was 1985. Opportunities in his former occupation seemed to be disappearing, and acting looked like a viable career change for a fellow who could get things done.
Before he left that day, I dictated five bullet points based on his signature. I then instructed that he was to commit these to memory and use them in a PR interview I would conduct with him at our next meeting the following week, and which could be inserted easily into conversations with the industry people with whom he would be coming into contact. Subtle but effective marketing, and he got it immediately.

The two of us became great friends that day. I think he liked that I had once spoken on a payphone across the parking lot from Mickey Cohen’s Carousel ice cream parlor while Mickey was on the phone next to me screaming death threats at someone. He appreciated that he didn’t have to ‘explain all the jokes’ as I like to say.

Our relationship lasted only a few months before he told me it was felt, in certain quarters, that becoming visible as an actor wasn’t the best life choice for him. I had wondered about this myself. Jack Dragna was one to keep a low profile and it seemed to be a trait adopted by Tom and Louis Tom Dragna as well. We parted as friends, and he brought a going-away present to our last meeting. I'll never divulge what it was.

It was a wise choice given his circumstances, but I have to admit that the world lost a great actor, for it was clear to me that he had been acting since the day he picked up that broom in the barbershop. And his signature had been finessed to perfection over the years. I wonder what became of him.