A studio credits czar rules his kingdom unless or until confronted. 1,711 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Sometimes the smallest gestures had the biggest consequences, didn’t they? The pebble to the windshield that eventually cracked the whole thing. The chance meeting at a premiere that neither was supposed to attend. Say if one morning thirty years ago, a development executive at Fox hadn’t argued with his boyfriend before coming into work, Jeffrey Baummann might had sold the script that set him on the path of a successful writer. Or twenty years ago to the liquor store a minute earlier, and Jeffrey would have bought the lottery ticket that won a hundred mil and not the someone who did right in front of hm. Ten years ago if not for a missed red light, Jeffrey might have met a different woman who could have been his wife. That morning, expending not even a calorie, he crossed out a name on a draft of end title credits for one of the studio’s films.
With the flick of a pen, a black line moved a half-inch right and one less dolly grip went into the roll.
Jeffrey was the studio’s credits czar, a nickname from an old boss to make him feel better when she declined his raise. Afterwards, the late head of publicity at that same studio said at a big meeting, "Oh Jeffrey, you’re the poor bastard who has that job." It certainly got a laugh.
This was what he did: prepared the main and end titles for the studio’s films which meant he looked at lists and lists of names, deciding whose would go in. He eliminated many of them with a small gesture. There was no attempt to find the private echo, this one resonating, that one not. He had a template. He filled it in.
He was at it now: Justin Barber, electrician. Gone. Phillip Limport, casting associate, gone. Mary Styrene, stunts… that one he studied for a while. The film was a drama about a husband and wife where at the 30-minute mark — what they called the first plot point — she was thrown up against a wall. A moment of great pressure and time suspended, but did that scene really require credit to a dozen stunt people to back an actress into a wall? With a stroke, Mary Styrene, stunts,was gone, and Jeffrey moved on down the list with his Uni-ball Signo, the kind of gel pen used to prevent fraud.
He himself was not a name, not one recognized if it should roll by on screen at the end of a film like a parade of ghosts against a black background.
He was not rich or successful enough to qualify for a Centurion Card. He was not an attorney though he worked among them and had taken on their smell.
Trisha Grame, accounting, gone. Bob Zlezer, greens, gone.
He was just some guy who’d come to Los Angeles with the dream of seeing his name in the credits of a film. He never thought it wouldn’t happen or that he would be making sure everyone else who warranted it got their name there in the right place with the right spelling in the right size. Not much of a legacy doing the credits for a couple hundred films, but Jeffrey had achieved the petty power to say no.
Zane Bleeker, greensman, gone. Martin Blaylock, visual effects lineup compositor, gone.
His mind had been wandering in his 96-square-foot office with a glass front where he was on exhibit to anyone who walked by. He read names and names and more names until he couldn’t tell the difference between Susanne and Suzanne, until Fiedler looked like Feidler. The curl of the letters scattered the page. When that happened, he locked down his computer and went out for coffee at the place on the lot. He used the break to justify to himself the names he had cut already that morning. Not every honey wagon driver was going to appear on the big screen. Not every set dresser. This one in. That one out.
Sometimes, on these walks, he compared the tensions of his life to other people’s. His wife’s brother worked in a box factory somewhere in the Midwest. The job kept him on his feet for the whole shift except for a half-hour lunch. He never worried about things like credit, didn’t care if he was mentioned in the company newsletter. If the brother didn’t die from brown-lung disease, then his back wind up destroyed from all the years of standing. What, exactly, did Jeffrey have to complain about? His future was not nearly as damned. He had an ergonometric chair at an ergonometric desk with an ergonometric keyboard and an ergonometric-correct-height monitor.
Yet his back was killing him like knives stabbing at his waist. He’d hurt it by bending over to grab one of those stupid subscription cards in the men’s health magazine his wife got him as a gift.
The line at the coffee place was long and moving slowly. Apparently half the studio, energy ebbing, had decided they needed a jolt of java, too. Every move Jeffrey made brought fresh stabbing pains right around the belt line. Stress brought it on. He was due to finish a film’s credits that day and correcting mistakes was expensive and difficult. He’d finished the draft of the main and end titles and was about to send it out to about 20 people for review. The producers on the movie wanted to see it. The creative executive from the studio got a copy. Once in a while he got a question from Business Affairs, but usually they left him alone. He hadn’t yet discussed it with the director, but anticipated an argument about the "Special Thanks" section. This helmer, a first timer, wanted to acknowledge everyone who’d ever helped his career. Jeffrey would have to make him understand, gently, that thanking Spielberg for a few words of encouragement early on, well, that was for amateurs making a student film.
Something always seemed to happen to Jeffrey at these times when the credits were about to be finalized. The bad back. A cold. A digestion problem. He couldn’t make mistakes because they cost money and led to personal embarrassment at a job not well-done. He was supposed to be good at what he did. Plus, he had payments to make on a condo and needed to keep working at the studio as long as possible.
Jeffrey was capable enough at what he did. In the years he’d been doing it, he’d only made a mistake twice. One was small: a driver on a film. From now until eternity, driver Stephen P. MacAllister’s first name would be spelled with a "ph" instead of a "v." Jeffrey had simply recorded what was on the crew deal having no reason to think otherwise. Turned out one of the PAs filled in the form wrong and MacAllister hadn’t bothered to fix it. No doubt a beautiful young production assistant had stuck a piece of paper in front of the driver who hadn’t bothered reading it before signing because he was staring at her tits.
MacAllister actually called Jeffrey personally to complain.
"The form was wrong," the driver said.
"But you signed it," Jeffrey insisted after comparing the signature against the scrawl that was written in. He was a proof-reader, not a handwriting expert, Still, from that time forward, he implemented new systems to search the internet for discrepancies and if he found one he called the crew member personally. It was time-consuming and laborious, yet when he found a mistake and corrected it, the high was as strong as the buzz he used to get from downing shots.
The other mistake. Well, that one was a lot worse. Some bizarre requirement that an actor’s name be positioned a half-line higher than anyone else’s like a nail sticking out that no one thought needed hammering. This special provision was contained in a confidential side letter which was never distributed.
So iF a tree fell in the woods and Jeffrey was not notified, or if Jeffrey was not there to see it crash down into the forest’s dark and loamy floor, or if Jeffrey was not given a document specifying the tree was on the move, then the tree was not going to get credit. Period. Sorry, tree.
For that one, Jeffrey got told that the actor hadn’t received the right credit and was angry. Angry enough to call the studio’s chairman who called the head of production who called the head of postproduction who called the general counsel who called the head of business affairs who called the head of entertainment legal who called Jeffrey.
"I don’t want to know why it happened. I can you see you feel bad. Just fix it," his boss said.
A few days after that, Jeffrey arrived at a special screening and overheard the studio’s chairman asking whose mistake it had been. The head of postproduction looked down trying to deflect. The head of production stepped back a full pace and was looking at the wall as if it were an art installation. But Jeffrey marched right up to the mogul.
"Mr. Manseco, it was my mistake. The letter with the special credit didn’t get to me so it didn’t get into the titles. But we’re fixing it. I’m sorry."
The chairman looked at Jeffrey for a second as if bringing him into focus and said, "Good. You made a mistake. You’re fixing it. That’s the way to do it."
For months afterward, people at the studio came up to Jeffrey and moved into close conversation with him so he could sprinkle some magic on them, too. They marveled that such a small gesture could have such big results. "You told him the truth," they said as if they couldn’t believe it.
Maybe Jeffrey should have cared more about all the credits he decided. Especially when his deleting people’s names made it harder for them to get their next jobs. But he had policies and precedents to follow. Besides, no one ever got upset with him when their credit didn’t appear. It was part of the business, right? The crew people understood; they always had before.