A movie’s magic is finding something new in every screening. 1,819 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Professor Daggett sits inside a local coffee haunt in Silverlake chatting with his colleague, Avery Dortch, who teaches cinematography at USC. Dortch, a short balding man with glasses and a love of Shakespeare, cups his hands around a caramel latte.
“Story doesn’t mean shit anymore, Avery. It’s all bells and whistles and car crashes and explosions.”
“I’ll grant you that we’re raising a generation of pre-diabetic androids who’ve never heard of Titus Andronicus.” Dortch lifts his head and closes his eyelids and recites, “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head…”
“Yes, yes, I know. But what do we do about it, Avery? Nuance means nothing anymore. Everything must be spelled out. The trailers give away the whole plot. Moviegoers now expect it.”
Dortch returns to earth. “I had a student once who said the cornfield scene in North By Northwest is way overrated.”
“You see? Proves my point.”
“When I asked him why, you know what he said? That Hitchcock should have had another plane appear. Then they could have had a big air duel in the sky over the cornstalks.”
Why do film school classes analyze the magic out of the movies? 2,246 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
At 6:02 p.m. on October 11, under a canopy of puffy coins sliding lazily south to southeast over the Los Angeles basin, professor Edwin E. Daggett has an epiphany.
“Yes! Of course!” he shouts and thrusts his fists upward in triumph.
Two hours later, Professor Daggett stands before his USC film studies class, his eyes burning with an excitement that his students haven’t seen in him before.
“So, your next assignment is to watch John Ford’s classic western The Searchers over the weekend and on Monday we’ll have a thorough discussion of its mysteries.”
Levi Sims, a member of the Trojans’ track team whose personal best in the 100-meter hurdles is 13.42, raises his hand with a puzzled look on his goateed face. “What do you mean by mysteries?”
“I want you to dissect the film and decipher scenes or dialogue that hint at other things,” replies the veteran author of several books on the Golden Era of Hollywood. “Look for what you may not have seen before.”
A TV cameraman in the early 1970s finds and films two civil war stories. 1,675 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Paul was very young, only 20, and this was to be his first film. He had saved enough money to fund it by working as a TV cameraman at former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s TV station in Austin, Texas. He wanted to produce a short anti-war fable and he was excited. The Vietnam war was raging, and many of his friends were fighting, and some had been killed. Paul had been graced with a high lottery number, so he wouldn’t be getting drafted. But the war was constantly on his mind, and he thought his allegory using the Civil War as a foundation might speak to viewers. It would be done in stark black and white, merging his influences of Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. He had projected a lot of their films in university classes serving as a teaching assistant in the Radio/TV/Film Department.
The story Paul outlined was simple. A wounded Confederate soldier is chased by a troop of Yankees and stumbles onto an isolated cabin in the woods where he is taken in by the kindly Old Man who lives there. Far away from battle, the soldier thinks he is safe. The Old Man shelters him, hiding him from his pursuers, binding his wounds and, when he is healed, watching him return to the war. The story was about paternal care and kindness found even in the heart of battle. It was also about the bleak cycle of violence in combat. There would be no dialogue: just simple action and emotion communicated through faces. And Paul knew that all his skills as a photographer and filmmaker would be required to pull this off.
He needed to find the perfect cast. His younger brother had a friend who was in the drama school at the university and would play the wounded Confederate soldier. The young actor was studying Shakespeare and Chekhov, all the great classic plays. Paul was lucky to have him.
He needed one more actor to play the Old Man, a Good Samaritan type. He searched for him everywhere. He wanted someone with gravitas and a special face. One day Paul drove up to a mini-mart to buy some beer, and an old man came out with white hair and a beard and eyes that almost twinkled. Paul asked him if he had ever thought about doing some acting because he had such a great face. The old man said he had done some community theatre many years ago. His name was Max and he was a beekeeper. Paul knew immediately Max would be perfect as the Good Samaritan.
The female filmmakers finally, finally, shoot their indieprod. 2,893 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
For Rachel and Stacey, the making of Escapade was a kind of blissful dream. Part of that feeling came from the European landscapes, which had a sort of abstract beauty since the filmmakers never stayed anywhere long enough or took enough time away from the work to absorb their reality. So they were carrying away memories like photographs. Not that there was anything wrong with that. They enjoyed floating. They were living in their own world for those eight weeks and everything else was just backdrop.
It was so easy, that was the astonishing part. It had begun with everyone’s small investments and then Peter Sandrian’s hundred thousand dollars and just continued, like a heartbeat, with the casting, their arrival in Paris, Hector Passy just walking up to them in a cafe and solving a dozen problems at once.
It seemed that every circumstance conspired at perfection: weather and bureaucracies, mood and coincidence and the currency exchange rate. Every location worked out easily. And Rachel’s unnerving cry of "Let’s put it in the movie!" soon became a standing joke. That was how it went. The movie was as much accident as design. Many of the things people wound up liking best were devised on the spur of the moment. For Rachel it was just common sense to take good stuff wherever she found it and use everything. She hated waste.
She was equally pragmatic about giving direction to her actors. She never couched her comments in Actor’s Studio jargon or Hollywood catchphrases. Instead she’d say specific things like "Give it an extra beat before you talk," or "Fall down when you say that line." Any time acting was in evidence, it was overacting to Rachel. "Don’t show us how hard you’re working," she said once. "Leave that to Meryl Streep."
The two women indie filmmakers now must find a cinematographer. 3,224 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Rachel and Stacey rehearsed Escapade for weeks, a luxury that no studio production could afford. At the same time they were making travel plans and renewing their passports. They wanted to organize the whole film in advance, but there wasn’t much they could accomplish until they actually arrived in Paris. They were set to leave April 1, and booked the others two weeks later. Outside the travel agency, with all the tickets clutched in one hand, Rachel threw her arms around her friend. "We’re really going, now. It’s official.”
The week before they left, Rachel threw a dinner party for the cast and crew. She wanted everyone comfortable with everyone else before they started shooting a low-budget film at close quarters in a foreign country. It was an enjoyable afternoon – volleyball on the beach, an early cook-out, people having fun. The only disturbing moment happened with Emily. Again.
They were outside in the deepening evening. A cool wind was blowing in off the ocean and Rachel was getting hamburgers onto buns before they burned. Emily slipped beside Rachel as she worked.
“So what am I feeling now?” Rachel asked her.
“Suspicious. Uncomfortable. Annoyed. It’s just something I can do. I wish you trusted me more. I could help you. I want to talk about… ” Emily looked around and lowered her voice, “Rafe DeMarco. He isn’t what he seems. You should get away from him.”
“I’m leaving for Europe with him in less than a week.”
“He’s trouble. I just think you should get as far away from him as possible.”
Rachel stared at her. “Where am I supposed to find a new DP who’ll fly his whole crew to Europe on four days’ notice?”
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: After a movie studio’s big night, the new boss plans changes. 1,442 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
TO: All Employees of Persistent Pictures
FROM: Bradford “Buddy” Newborn, President
RE: Studio Philosophy and Production Slate
We’re all proud of the eight Oscars that Persistent Pictures won last night under Bob Cutner’s management. We hope he gets to use his taste and leadership at another company now that he’s suddenly moved on to make way for me.
Since arriving to head the studio, I’ve seen many of you in the hallways, in the valet parking lot, and as I walk through the commissary on the way to my private dining room. But this is the first chance I’ve had to introduce myself since my father, Bradford Newborn Sr., bought the studio.
To quell some of the rumors and wisecracks I’ve been hearing through our advanced monitoring system, I am well aware that moviemaking isn’t anything like the strappy sandal business. It just so happens that shoes are only one of the many manufacturing interests of Newborn International. We also make small home appliances (“Nothing larger than a toaster oven” is our motto), breath mints and lacrosse equipment. We also had a major investment in the Miami Majors, an ice hockey franchise that I was in charge of running until it folded last year. Let me speak frankly: the Majors died because of poor public support, not because of that lawsuit from 12-year-old Jimmy Brewin after a puck got sucked up into the Zamboni and shot out into the stands, taking with it half his face.
I can report that Little Jimmy is doing well, all things considered, and loves his new nose, mouth and mansion.
Now, for studio business.
The FBI and LAPD pursue the notorious Hollywood killer teaching a UCLA film class. 3,721words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Special Agent Phillip Kennis lifted the mini-bar bottle of orange juice and toasted his image in the mirror. He hadn’t taken a real drink in fourteen years and he had never been a breakfast drunk, anyway. But he wouldn’t have minded a touch of champagne in the Tropicana this morning. He finally had something to celebrate.
After close to half a million man hours including his own team and the state police and local cops in four cities in two states; after a closed door Congressional hearing, two review boards and a suspension over his methods and attitude; after a work-related divorce and eight months of eating Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese out of the microwave, he was finally going to arrest the Auteur.
The Auteur wasn’t some Rambo-like killing machine. He wasn’t even particularly fit. He was devious, not physically intimidating. Today, he was just an ordinary guy, standing in the pit of a lecture hall, teaching a course called Directing Actors — the tabloids would have a ball with that one. It was going down this morning, in a little more than an hour, when the film classes started at UCLA.
The paperwork was done – Phil wasn’t going to make that mistake again: no more cowboy stuff, no more improvisations. The judge had signed off on the raid just before midnight, and shaken Phil’s hand with a terse, “Go get him, son.” It was an uncharacteristic moment of warmth. Judge Howard Kyle was an unapologetic civil liberties fanatic who despised the Patriot Act and the men who took advantage of it. Phil had come up against him before. But this was different. Judge Kyle had seen the captured film — part of it at least.
“I walk out of regular movies all the time,” he said. “I walked out of Inglourious Basterds when they started beating people to death with baseball bats, and that was make-believe. I saw precisely as much of this one as the letter of the law required.”
So the Auteur had brought them together in a moment of bipartisan law enforcement and judicial solidarity, when nothing else had ever come close. That felt good. The Auteur had unwittingly created that irony, along with his high-end murder porn.
A film professor teaches his former student, now a studio exec, how to make a free movie. 2,979 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“I’d love to buy your pitch,” she said, “but all we’re making this year is shit.”
It’s a good thing the Vice President of Production of United General Pictures had carpeting in her office or she would have heard my jaw hit the floor as I realized that my project had been shot down by friendly fire even before it had taxied, let alone taken off.
“Orders from the top,” Megan Koplowitz continued, "and not just from the top of the studio, but from the top of the conglomerate that owns us. Make shit.”
She was being suicidally candid. But I expected nothing less from my prized former film student.
“This is hard to hear,” I said, “coming from the studio that last year won six Oscars out of 18 noms. There’s no way you could make shit even if you tried.”
“Well, we’re trying. Awards cost money. Shit doesn’t.”
I waited for her to crack a smile. Nothing. Megan sat poker-faced in her thousand-dollar swivel chair, pulling on her five dollar vapor cigarette, and leafing through the studio’s billion dollar list of fecal matter.