Tuesday, October 09, 2007

IN DEFENSE OF DIVAS

After an exhausting three weeks of filming, we have finally wrapped principal photography on BRIDAL FEVER and while I didn’t intend to get emotionally involved in this one – to quote my dear friend Leslie Jordan “some you do to get to the podium and some you do just to get to the parking lot” – I have to admit that I think we’ve actually made quite a charming little movie.

Our screenwriter Karen came up with the first draft almost a decade ago, well before a disastrous but brief 17 hour (!) marriage of her own, so it bears the delightfully innocent stamp of someone who still believed in the power of love.



As a man who endured his own tumultuous years of marital drama – great wedding, but it was all downhill after we opened the gifts - this kind of romantic optimism would, in my humble opinion, qualify it for inclusion in the “science fiction” section of your local Blockbuster where it not for the performances of our wonderful cast led by Andrea Roth-



-anchored by her leading men Gabriel Hogan and Vincent Walsh -



- and ultimately elevated to an entirely new level of deliciousness by the presence of Miss Delta Burke as the Danielle Steele-esque “Dahlia Marchand”.



Now I know what you’re waiting for, dear reader. You want to hear all the scandalous dirt about the making of the movie; the temper tantrums on set, the disastrous accidents which befell us, the torturous hours and nightmarish working conditions we suffered all in the name of bringing to you, the audience, a couple of hours of light entertainment.



Well guess what? There isn’t any!

Unlike my last Canadian production with its complaining crew and bone chilling temperatures, this one - for reasons best left undisclosed for fear of cursing my next one - rolled along with barely a hiccup.



Sure, I’m ignoring the effect of the declining American dollar on our budget, shrinking it by sixty thousand bucks and knocking a day off our schedule; far be it from me to comment on the wisdom of basing one’s corporate cash flow on the vagaries of world currency exchange.

I’m also not going to mention the rather peculiar Eve Harrington-like Production Assistant who entered one of our actresses’ trailers while she was on set and proceeded to rearrange her personal effects - including the contents of her purse and private documents - into alphabetized piles and hermetically sealed zip lock bags. This understandably freaked out said actress for the rest of the shoot, especially when her co-star revealed that the same PA had done it to him before on another film.



And I certainly don’t want to give you the name of the stylist who continued to soak another of our actors in toxic hairspray, even after she repeatedly explained to him that she was nursing a child and really couldn’t risk exposing the infant to breast milk tainted with Aquanetta.

Furthermore I will not tell you anything about the constant arguments between the Sound Mixer and the Wardrobe Dresser regarding who was better suited to affix the wireless microphones to the actors in order to conceal them from the camera’s probing lens, a battle which eventually led to a showdown so intense that I actually had to step in and pull them apart for fear of having a double murder make the headlines on Entertainment Tonight.



No, dear reader, you will not be hearing any of these sordid details from me. These were, after all, just the sorts of common minor league dramas that regularly occur on any film set and hardly worth the breath. Especially after the wonderful experience of the warmest Ontario autumn on record, a pleasantly enthusiastic and hard working team of mostly non-psychopathic crew members and the gracious welcome we were given in Hamilton and – even more shockingly – at our final location, the glamorous Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto.



What I do want to talk about, however, is the Diva Factor.

I have, in what passes for my career, had the opportunity to work with several of our more colorful actresses and while their reputations have often preceded them – not necessarily in a terribly positive light – I've been surprised to discover just how un-Diva like they've all been. Even the certifiable ones.

I am reminded of a certain “bad girl” whose escapades as the star of not one but two hit television series are legendary in Hollywood gossip circles. She graced a recent film of mine and I will admit that having her name put forward initially by the casting director gave me considerable pause. Would she throw one of her legendary “fits” on set? Would she make unreasonable demands? Would she ignore my every request and just do as she damn well pleased?



Imagine my delight to discover that said “bad girl” was anything but. From the fifteen minutes she spent in hair and makeup in the morning (virtually unheard of for any leading lady, and almost an hour less than her leading man required for the same process) to her incredible professionalism on set, having her in my movie was simply a magical experience. And even more extraordinary was the friendship we forged off set as we swapped favorite scenes from 1940’s film noir movies – interestingly most of our current Divas LOVE old Hollywood -- and worked our way through several fields of New Zealand grapes in our joint quest to find the perfect glass of wine.

It occurred to me during that shoot, and on subsequent films with other equally ill-reputed thespians, that perhaps they hadn’t so much “sinned” as been “sinned against”. The rumors of "difficult" actors may make for great tabloid fodder but like the rest of the trash spewed out by the Entertainment News Industry - those inane bobble heads of hair and teeth who shout at us nightly about the latest celebrity rehab scandal or which pop singer left her baby on the hood of a car - they are often utter bloody lies. If these so-called "reporters" fed any closer to the bottom, they'd have sand in their teeth.

And not to besmirch my fellow members of the Director’s Guild but if anecdotal evidence has any weight at all, it’s probably safe to say there are more jodhpur and beret-wearing jerks per capita calling action than there are actors refusing to listen.



With the exception of Alfred Hitchcock and, occasionally, Steven Spielberg the average filmgoer doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the name after “A Film By”, so perhaps it behooves the film industry to stop coddling every AFI brat with a viewfinder and an all access pass to Sundance around his neck and start giving our modern Divas a little more respect. I'm sure this will sound sacrilegious, and I'm probably setting myself up for a blistering series of attacks on my own admittedly spotty oeuvre, but do we really need any more self-styled auteurs using their trust funds to fill our collective imaginations with their usually privileged look at the seamier side of life? Call me old-fashioned, but I think we could do with a little less ugliness on our movie screens and a little more in the way of good old fashioned glamour.

Which brings me to Delta Burke.



She started out as an honest-to-god Florida Beauty Queen and made her way to Hollywood where, after several false starts, she became the much loved star of a wildly successful sitcom, destined for tv immortality. With a solid marriage to actor Gerald McRaney and high profile guest starring roles in hit feature films and television shows, Delta has become an icon to millions around the world.

Fast forward to 2007. Our producers discover that Miss Burke is interested in our script and decide to contract her for the movie. This is a major coup, not just for me but for the network as well, and the machinery moves into place to bring her to Toronto for our shoot.

However, while the Toronto film industry does many things well – pretending to be New York comes to mind – it does NOT understand how to treat talent. This is the reason that most actors leave Canada immediately upon achieving even a slight level of stardom; it's not just about money and opportunity, it's about respect. I don't care if you've got maple syrup running through your veins, if you have to fight for something as simple as a dressing room that isn't just a tent pitched behind a porta-potty, you're not gonna stick around very long.



And so, no sooner was the ink dry on Miss Burke’s contract than the rumor mill groaned to life, rumbling about what problems she MIGHT cause before she’d even landed at the airport - the conventional wisdom up here being that Movie Stars ALWAYS cause trouble.

Of course the fact that she contracted a horrible head cold onboard the flight, probably the result of being seated too close to some disease ridden infant (I firmly believe children on aircraft should be treated like gels and liquids - sealed in a small plastic bag until they reach their destination!) only added fuel to that fire. When the cold got so bad she was unable to even get out of bed, and our schedule had to be delayed by a day causing some minor irritation amongst various departments, heads began to shake - was our Star being "difficult"? Knowing this is how rumors get started, I decided to plow head on into the situation before it got out of hand.

“She is a legend”, I reminded the crew. “But even legends get chest colds. And I'd rather have one Delta Burke hacking up phlegm balls the size of cabbages than ten nobodies who can breath. End of story."



Surprisingly, not a word was said about it again and once she got her sea legs back, Delta charmed the whole crew in less time than it takes to say "rolling". Which left me with the impression that this “anti-star” thing isn’t something the locals actually believe as much as they have been indoctrinated into; a version of that Canadian mantra, as patriotic as a Tim Horton's Deep Fried Beaver, which drones “what makes you think you’re better than anybody else?”

And as for Delta, well, she IS better than anybody else. Not only was she a complete professional on set, but every scene, every moment and every emotion she plays in our movie is perfectly tuned and brilliantly performed. Her character's final speech brought tears to our eyes and her presence in the picture is the icing on an utterly delightful cake.

Back in American cinema’s Golden Age – the era roughly bracketed by Fred and Ginger at one end-



- and Bonnie and Clyde at the other -



- the studio bosses understood the intrinsic value of "Stars", those glittering icons whose very presence in a film created the kind of magic that brought audiences back time and time again. It wasn’t just about the money, it was about the fantasy and in Hollywood, a country unto itself during its prime, these people were Gods. But that was when the movies were made by men who loved them, and the dream they represented, not by the ghastly little bean counters of today whose upward failures have been rewarded by the insertion of their names into the credits of a film for doing nothing more than showing up on opening night.

These days, with very few exceptions, movie "stars" are little more than interchangeable stick insects with three names and rubber breasts - for the women AND the men - jammed randomly into plotless teen vulgarities or overblown special effects extravaganzas aimed at the seemingly endless audience of thirteen year old boys who interrupt their bouts of video game playing and masturbation just long enough to loudly storm into the local Gigaplex, order nachos and then text message their absent friends through the entire movie anyway.

Occasionally, however, one gets a whiff of that great classic era when Divas ruled in Hollywood. Like tonight, as we all gathered in the historic Library Bar at the Royal York, once host to those same stars of the silver screen – Astaire, Garbo, Gable, Monroe – to celebrate the successful completion of our film. After several rounds of extraordinarily well made martinis – with the tab very generously picked up by one of our producers - I looked across the table to see Miss Burke in her glory, holding court amongst the rest of the cast and crew.

It wasn’t The Brown Derby, to be sure; hell, it’s not even Musso and Frank’s.



But there was magic in the air. And even if I didn’t get to work with Miss Davis or Miss Crawford



or even the fictional Miss Norma Desmond



I think I can take comfort in the fact that I’ve got a Shannen and a Delta on speed dial.

Frankly, that’s quite enough for me.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

WRONG WAY, DUMMY!

For tax reasons – and if you’re making a movie in Canada it's a sure bet it is either for tax reasons or because you've been banished from Hollywood for sleeping with the wrong executive - we are filming BRIDAL FEVER in Hamilton, Ontario, a Pittsburgh-lite about an hour west of Toronto.



Our morning call times are dreadfully early, the only flaw in the otherwise brilliant plan designed by my First AD Robyn (who is as far from the last Canadian First AD I had as one could possibly get – see previous blogs for details) -



- and with my ritual of going to the gym before arriving on set forcing me to awaken at 4 am, I have fallen into the habit of breaking the law daily by exiting the hotel parking lot and making an illegal right turn, going the wrong way down a one way street in order to cut five minutes out of my travel time. Given my location at the corner of Crack Street and Hooker Drive, the local gendarmes are apparently busy with bigger fish and have thus far left me alone to my life of crime.



(Not to say that my hotel is a den of iniquity or anything as sordid as all that; it's actually a beautiful place, the height of elegance, but it just so happens to have been plunked down squarely in the middle of some rather declasse surroundings and the neighborhood denizens are the sort that one normally can find only in the more modestly priced tattoo parlors. The following is an actual conversation I overheard as I walked along the street on the way back from dinner last week:

Hooker 1: "How are you and Danny gettin' along?"
Hooker 2: "He's in jail."
Hooker 1: "Jeez, everybody's in jail, eh?")

Traveling so early that my exfoliating night cream is still causing me to shed the outer layer of my face as I drive, one assumes there would be no other traffic with which to contend. This morning, however, I was startled to see a pair of headlights approaching from the end of the street and, not wanting to force an automotive confrontation before breakfast, I pulled over to the curb to allow right of way to the oncoming car. But instead of simply making his way along the now-empty street, the driver decided to editorialize the experience, rolling down his window to shout “Wrong Way, Dummy!!” at me as he passed by.

Wrong Way, Dummy?

For some reason, this stuck in my mind for the rest of the day. And it wasn’t just the anachronism of “dummy” – who says “dummy” anymore? – nor the sheer absurdity of somebody actually taking the time to stop, roll down his car window and question my intelligence regarding the rules of the road. His voice replayed in my head as I worked out at the Hamilton YMCA – a very well organized fitness center, I must say, although like the Montreal Y, the “premium” change room features not only grooming products and fresh towels but also the rather grim spectacle of obese, middle aged men washing their nether-regions astride the water jets of the locker room whirlpool – and even echoed when I arrived on set passing by the one-armed beggar stationed in front of our shopping center location in the city’s downtown core.

Speaking of him, I should point out that he was playing an electric keyboard, so technically he was in fact not a “beggar” but rather a “street performer”. When I first encountered him during our location scout for this movie, I considered introducing him to the One-Eyed Flute Player I’d met previously in Toronto (see “My Glass Eye” blog for details).



Perhaps, I thought, there was a market for an entire band made up of people with missing body parts: one can imagine them on some American Idol-type program where they would surely win the popular vote. Television audiences LOVE people who overcome adversity; one can only imagine the feel-good thrill they'd receive watching somebody hit a high C from a wheelchair.

But to be honest, he wasn’t very good. That may sound harsh, I know, but if you’re going to put yourself out there in the professional music industry you’ve got to be willing to face the critics. Granted, he only has one hand to work with, but it could be argued he’s made the wrong decision when it comes to his instrument of choice. If I were him, I would’ve gone for a drum.

Anyway, back to the Shouting Driver.

It was only a passing insult, hurled by someone I didn’t know and would likely never see again, but I couldn’t help wondering if maybe he was right? Did my crime, slight as it was, really make me out to be a complete idiot? What if there had been children on bicycles, or perhaps Nuns, hurtling toward me, their shiny faces caught in my high beams in those last few seconds before being smeared across the pavement? How would I have felt? And would the ensuing investigation make it onto Entertainment Tonight?

But then I wondered what exactly this bellowing curmudgeon was doing up at four twelve in the morning himself anyway? Was he too on his way to a film set where he would do work that he loves, directing a hundred talented people to make a movie which would be enjoyed by millions?



Possibly not, which would certainly explain his foul temper; I've been told there are a great many people out there who spend the better part of their lives toiling at jobs they despise and while I can't exactly relate to that particular experience, I am after all a creative sort so I can imagine how it must feel.

More or less.

Perhaps he felt free to insult me because he saw me coming out of a hotel and decided that, since I was obviously a transient, I was fair game. Such is the lot of the Constant Guest and, having lived most of my adult life in various inns around the world, I have come to appreciate both the advantages and disadvantages of my existence.

Take, for example, the phenomenon of the Hotel Bar.



The advantage of this particular institution is obvious: booze on demand. The disadvantage, however, may not be so immediately apparent. I refer of course to The Fellow Traveler.

They come in all shapes and sizes, and varying genders, but they share one thing in common: the desire – nay, the NEED – to connect with those around them. This is certainly an understandable human trait and one that I would welcome in any other situation – a plane crash, say, or finding myself stranded on a desert island with absolutely nothing to read.

However, when one spends one’s days surrounded by a very large group of people -



- each of whom has at least a dozen questions which demand immediate answer “OR PRODUCTION WILL GRIND TO A HALT” (tantamount, in our business, to Armageddeon), the very last thing one wishes to do is spend one’s precious few minutes of downtime – the Martini Hour, as I call it – making small talk with some Out-of-Towner who feels we must have Something In Common because we’re staying in the same bloody hotel. Unfortunately, it would seem that just showing up in the lounge sends some kind of signal to these people that you are just dying to make conversation.

And OH what conversation it is! The questions never vary. “Where are you from?” “How long are you here for?” And the dreaded “What are you doing in town?”

Damnable honesty prevents me from dodging the latter, although I have often been tempted to say “penis enlargement surgery” and hope that this would be enough to send them back to their soup. But usually the Bartender, well-intentioned, will pipe up with “Mr. Oliver’s here making a movie…” which then leads to the usual queries – who’s in it? What’s it about? What do you do in the movie? After a few minutes of this tedious inquisition, there inevitably comes the one statement which I’ve learned to dread with the kind of stomach-churning horror usually reserved for “the test results are positive” or “where are we going with this relationship?”:

“You know,” they say, settling back in their chairs as if about to deliver a pronouncement to rival the Dead Sea Scrolls, “ MY life would make a great movie!”

This ominous sentence is then followed by a rambling, drunken history of the Teller’s invariably un-cinematic life, usually centered around some imagined slight against their own worth as the Best Damned School Teacher/Financial Systems Analyst/Buffalo Breeder who ever graced the planet. And unless I wish to abandon what is often a very well-made Martini (well-made because I have instructed the hotel staff exactly how to do it, by the way – I’ve lost track of how many Bartenders around the world I’ve had to teach that vermouth is to be used sparingly, like cologne or French), I am forced to endure this torturous babble with my smile frozen on my face like I’m Dr. Sardonicus until they finally reach the conclusion and turn to me and say:

“So? What do you think? I give you the story, you write it and we split the money!?”

The money. It’s always about the money.

There was a time when one told one’s stories to help one’s fellow man, to instruct, to share a bit of wisdom hard earned in the hope that maybe the Listener could avoid hardship in the future and travel an easier path.

But that was when we lived in caves, or in the shadows of the trees. Now, in this era of American Idol and Big Brother – the Oprah-ization of Culture – stories aren’t for the telling, they are for the Selling. And as a commodity, I’m afraid that the existence of the Common Man has become something no longer done quietly, with small victories and personal failures weighed against the final accounting of a Life Lived. Simple human calamities are now treated as plot points to be used for entertainment or, worse, competition, and my Fellow Travelers no longer see the road beneath us as a Journey.

They see it as a Movie. And they seem to think we all should, too.

But as I said before, there are advantages to Hotel Life. For example, as I write this, I see a familiar face coming toward me…a certain Academy Award Nominated Actor of my acquaintance, and his smile and warm hug alone makes all of this nonsense worth the price of admission.

Because even if this life I’ve chosen means a constantly shifting landscape, the odds are fairly good that once in awhile the sands will align and the strangers will fall away, to reveal that one’s family – chosen and otherwise – have been traveling too.

To paraphrase Shirley Jackson in her classic novel "The Haunting of Hill House" - “journeys end in loved one’s meeting…” and if, as that passing, early morning reprobate so graciously pointed out I AM going the “wrong way, dummy”, it is at least MY very own wrong way and for that reason alone I shall keep on driving.