A Hollywood Primer
by Bruce Feirstein
If you spend any time working inthe movie business, sooner or later you learn there's a subtle game of one-upmanship that goes on. It's a sophisticated game that one plays in order to be perceived as an insider--and not at all dissimilar from the manner in which otherwise socialized packs of vicious jackals rip into one another's throats on the African veldt in order to establish dominance.
The object in Hollywood, however, is to establish your "cinematic bona fides" and stake out your position on the food chain (or car-valet return line). And as an added benefit--if that's how one terms "collateral damage"--you get to not only crush someone's ego but render their life, connections, and accomplishments utterly worthless. All of this, of course, is merely an adjunct to the old Hollywood ethos that "it's not enough for me to succeed; my friends must fail," but let's not get into that right now.
The ritual I'm describing here is often witnessed during meetings or at film-festival panels where the goal is always to reference the single most obscure Swedish, French, Japanese, or Spanish film possible. Better still if the film was never dubbed into English. Or, best of all, never even released. And if this doesn't work, simply invoke the "Buñuel." Almost no one I know in modern Hollywood has actually ever seen a film directed by Luis Buñuel, but it's always a conversation stopper. "I understand what Michael Bay is trying to accomplish, but Buñuel did it first."
On a more practical level, however, this game is played on a far more convivial and social setting--sort of like a steel-cage death match on a Bel Air tennis court--with hand grenades. To wit: if someone says they went to a movie premiere, you must immediately counter, "I saw a rough cut." (Note: Again, almost no one in Hollywood actually knows what a "rough cut" is, save, perhaps, Harvey Weinstein. But he's not telling.) If they claim to have seen a rough cut, you were on the set. If they were on the set, you read the first draft. And if they read--or wrote--the firstdraft, you had the idea fifteen years ago but passed on it because it wasn't commercial. Game, set, match.
We can now move on to the second inviolate rule--and ritual--in Hollywood: taking credit. In Hollywood, the basic social contract is that "I'll believe you're an actress if you believe I'm a producer." And this is followed closely by the notion that perception is reality: You're only as respected as the reputation you've managed to promote. Put another way: Failure is an orphan, but success has twenty-six co-producers. (Actually, success has twenty-six producers, eleven executive producers, twenty-two co-producers, one line-producer, four uncredited writers, the director, the leading man's manager, one extremely disgruntled original screenwriter who would have been much happier if they'd stuck to his original script . . . plus six German financial entities, each of whom has a single-card animated logo at the beginning of the film.)
So what does all this mean, on a practical level? Simple: nobody knows for certain anyway. So if it ain't nailed down, take credit for it. No matter how specious or completely tangential your affiliation may have been with a film--"I once dated the director's mother's podiatrist's car detailer"--it is your moral right and social imperative to take credit for all of it. In my own career, I first learned about this back when I was working on the lot at Metro, in 1938. I'd just finished doing a two-week punch-up on Oz (my contribution: Tin Man--needs a heart) when David Selznick called in a panic. He had Rhett, he had Scarlett, he had the Civil War, but he didn't have an ending.
"What am I going to do?" he pleaded.
"Two words," I told him.
"What, what?" he cried.
Of course, being responsible for the success of Gone with the Wind is but one of the very small contributions I've made to the film business. (Note closely: false humility. Let the person you're trying to impress stand there slack-jawed in awe.)
I remember when I first got into the film business, through Charlie Chaplin. He was a real son of a bitch. Always complaining about one thing or another. And the day I showed up on the set--to serve him a subpoena, if I remember correctly, on some morals charge, Ithink--he was grousing about the caterer. "Yo, Charlie," I told him, "stop your whining. Dance with the dinner rolls if you have to. Eat your goddamned shoe."
In 1940, I told Jack Warner: "No. Ilse gets on the plane."
Orson Welles: "Why don't you try doing something with the sled?"
W. C. Fields: "You can't dance, you can't sing. Work the drink."
And when Billy Wilder and I. A.L. Diamond came down with a case of writer's block, I was always there for them. Sunset Boulevard? "Do it in flashback." Some Like It Hot? "Put'em in drag." "No. Not The Brownstone. The Apartment."
Needless to say, I could go on. So I will:
When Hitch shot too muchfootage, I told him: "The shower scene? Use a lot of cuts."
Simpson and Bruckheimer? "Pummel the audience into submission with sound."
Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman? "Lobsters. Play the scene twice."
Spielberg? "Make it a shark."
Scorsese: "Shoot what you know."
Peckinpah: "Slow motion."
Of course, I wasn't always right. And in retrospect, I'm still not entirely convinced, but I suppose I can see where Jim Cameron was probably better off not doing the Andrea Doria.
The point I'm trying to make here--and I forget who said it originally, so I'll take full credit--is that movies are moments. Glimpses and scenes--Groucho and the boys in the stateroom, Bogie and Raines on the tarmac--are what linger in our memories.
For me, the real test of a film is when I say I'm going to watch five minutes--and two hours later, I'm still sitting there as the end credits roll:
Bridge Over the River Kwai. His Lady Eve. The Apartment. Pat and Mike. Thunderball, Dr. Strangelove, The Verdict, Notorious, The Professionals, The Sting. Annie Hall, Animal House, Heaven Can Wait, The African Queen. Rififi, Chinatown. The Man Who Would Be King. All About Eve, The Hustler. To Kill a Mockingbird.
And virtually anything with Fred MacMurray, Sean Connery, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum, Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster, or William Holden.
As I think back on my years in the film business, I suppose my greatest days were in the late '60s. I was working on the lot at Paramount. And one Friday, I stumbled back from lunch at Musso's to find a script on my desk from this new young director Coppola. (I'd been at lunch with Bill Goldman. He was having problems with an "oater"--a horsepicture, as we used to call 'em. I told him: "Billy boy, you've got ashoot-'em-up. A cowboy picture. Nobody's buying 'em these days. But have you thought about doing it as a comedy?" Funny thing is, I never heard from Goldman again. No gift, no flowers, no fruit basket. And nothing--not so much as aword--from Redford or Newman. Not even a case of salad dressing at Christmas. Let me tell you: It's a tough business.)
It seems that young Francis was having trouble with a picture. It just wasn't coming together. He asked if I'd take a look. So I read the script over the weekend and called him Monday morning.
"Francis," I said, "It's genius. The script is amazing. A saga. You, this Puzo guy, and Bob Towne--if he goes forcredit: Statues at the show."
I heard him gasp. "But--"
"No, Francis," I interrupted." Listen to me. You've got a chance to make one of the most beloved American movies of all time. A chance to imbue the American culture with characters and dialogue that will live forever.
"You've got the horse's head in the bed, the brother-in-law kicking out the windshield, the old man dying in the tomato patch. The wedding, the assassination of the police captain, the murder at the toll booth."
"It's almost perfect," I told him.
"I know," he said quietly. "But how do I fix it?"
"Francis, that's simple," I said.
"Make them Italian."
Bruce Feirstein is a longtime columnist at The New York Observer, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and the best-selling author of Real Men Don't Eat Quiche. His screenwriting credits include the James Bond films GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The World Is Not Enough. He is responsible for the female "M" (Dame Judi Dench) calling Bond a "sexist misogynist dinosaur" and for the Robert Maxwell-inspired character Elliot Carver (portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) declaiming, "The distance between sanity and genius is only measured by success."
POSTED BY Robert Kahn on March 6th 2010 | Add a comment