Monday, November 19, 2007

MENSA NUDES

As is my custom, I awoke at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am and made my way to the gymnasium to start the first day of filming on “Ice Blues: A Donald Strachey Mystery” in tip top condition. Determined not to end up like any number of film directors throughout history –



- hopelessly out of shape, wildly unhealthy and bitter enough to cure olives – I drove from my hotel in downtown Vancouver to our location in Langley absurdly early in order to avoid the crush of traffic one usually finds on the SINGLE ROUTE in and out of the city, evidently originally built on a path used by drunken mules finding their way home.



British Columbia’s largest city is many things – clean, scenic, civic minded – but it is hellishly difficult to navigate around. Especially given the fact that those who travel on its roads and thoroughfares seem genetically predisposed to drive at or below the speed limit in the left hand passing lane.

At first I thought this was just some kind of quaint local custom or perhaps simple ignorance of the rules of the road. My tailgating, headlight flashing and horn honking – all helpful attempts to suggest the offenders return to their proper place on the right hand side of the highway - produced nothing but confused glances and the occasional upraised middle finger. In retrospect, I realize that my efforts were futile from the outset; one simply cannot negotiate with these “hempbillies”!!

The province’s original cash crop – lumber – has been superceded by another, more lucrative trade; marijuana. The pot up here is so powerful – and indeed so all pervasive – that just getting off the plane is enough to give one a contact high. So it should come as no surprise that fully 80 percent of the population – drivers included – would be stoned at any given time.



A rather colorful Los Angeles film producer, making a movie in Vancouver, once referred to his Canadian crew as “Mexicans In Sweaters” but I fear he may have been off by a few thousand miles; “Jamaicans In Fleece” is more like it.

Anyway, upon my arrival at the Langley Fitness World -



-- I was greeted with the news that they did not have “towel service”. For the sedentary among you, this is the rather common practice of providing towels for the club’s membership to use in order to clean off sweat soaked equipment, dry off after showering and rip off to use later to wipe away the evidence of random trysts made while at the gym. But when I asked where I could buy a towel, the Desk Clerk gave me a blank smile, his bleached teeth shining against the tangerine-colored skin he sported courtesy of the tanning booth located not fifteen feet from his post and said “gee, I don’t think anything’s open in Langley at six o’clock in the morning.”

And so I found myself driving around sub-suburban British Columbia hours shy of dawn, looking for linens, the phenomenal stupidity of the area’s haphazard city planning becoming more and more apparent as the sun rose. Strip malls abound, crammed up against faceless housing developments and wedged in between random office buildings and warehouse units without rhyme or reason. What was once proud farmland and lush green forest has become, literally overnight, one of the ugliest places on earth.

This is where we have been forced to make our movie.

The government of British Columbia, in a well-intentioned but thoroughly misguided attempt to bring industry and commerce to the areas outside Vancouver, have been offering a healthy tax credit for businesses based in the hinterlands. It seems like a good idea, I suppose, and if one was making a film that could take advantage of the local color – a romantic comedy about inbreeding, perhaps, or maybe a horror film that takes place entirely inside Home Depot – one would be very well served.

If, on the other hand, one is trying to create a post-modern film noir, set in Albany, New York, one is – to put it mildly – screwed.

But with the help of a phenomenal crew – my “A” team of cinematographer Kim Miles -



First Assistant Director Sirish Harman, production designer Rick Whitfield and camera operator Ryan Purcell –



- not to mention our stars Chad Allen -



- and Sebastian Spence -



- the very first day of shooting came off almost without a hitch.

At least it did after I purchased three Christmas decorated hand towels from an all night grocery store, worked out with one and dried off with the other two, much to the amusement of my locker room companions back at the Fitness World.



I tried to explain that I was getting into the Spirit of the Season early, but I don’t think they bought it.

We started off filming at the lovely estate of a local construction magnate-



- whose delightful wife gave us the literal keys to the castle with a single caveat – No Nudity in the Hot Tub.



This in spite of the fact that the only nude scene in the entire film takes place IN THE HOT TUB: apparently our Locations Manager had to use a bit of creative truth telling to secure the place. But it was almost a moot point anyway, as upon their arrival our background performers – local strippers hired for the express purpose of being naked in the hot tub – balked at taking off their clothes.



This did not surprise me.

Earlier in the week, during a meeting with our Extras Casting Coordinator, I had specifically told her to make sure that the Naked Extras knew they were being cast because they were going to be unclothed in the scene. That is to say they were to be filmed with no clothes on. Full frontal nudity.

Naked.

I made the point again, repeating myself in person and in an email I sent out later copied to EVERYONE in the production to make sure that there was no misunderstanding. These actors were going to be NUDE. Of course everyone nodded and smiled and agreed and said they understood and the agents would be told and they in turn would tell their “clients” who would then show up on set and take off their clothes and get into the hot tub.

Naked.

(A short aside: whenever I have filmed a nude scene in Canada, I have had trouble. Invariably the actors show up and say “I didn’t know I was supposed to be naked”, despite having been hired for that very reason. It’s a mystery to me, especially in a place like Vancouver, where the infamous Wreck Beach –



- a ghastly little strip of mud packed every summer’s weekend with the shamelessly exposed flesh of locals and visitors alike, most of whom would be better served by full evening wear, including top hat - that there should be such hang-ups about nudity on screen. But it happens every single time, and I’ve come to expect it. )

After shooting the opening scene of the film, a rather nasty bit of torture involving suspending Chad from the ceiling of the tool shed and zapping him with a Taser (a “hanging Chad”, as it were), we proceeded to briskly move on to the hot tub scene. Cameras were set up, lights prepared, and then it came time to call the actors to set. At which point one of my assistant directors came to me with a rather sheepish look on his face and said “there’s a little problem”. Without missing a beat I said “let me guess. They don’t want to get naked.”

He laughed, looking at me in disbelief. “How did you know?”

Indeed.

After a flurry of phone calls, and a daisy chain of finger pointing wherein the casting director accused the agents, the agents accused the casting director and the actors accused anybody they could, I finally put my foot down and called the four performers – 3 girls and a guy - aside for a conference.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t care if you don’t want to be naked in a movie. That’s your decision. But what I do care about is that I have 50 people standing around doing nothing while you hold my movie hostage. Your agents all had copies of the email outlining the scene, you all agreed to do this—“

At which point the guy piped up: “Nobody said anything about being naked.”

“Then why on EARTH did you think I was casting you? You’re a stripper-“

“Exotic dancer,” one of the girls corrected me.

“Fine, exotic dancer. Who gets naked for a living! Did you think I hired you to come and compute “Pi” on screen for me? Now either you get naked or you go home, with no pay, and I sue your agents for breach of contract. You’ve got five minutes.”

I walked out of the room and left them there. Six minutes later they were naked in the hot tub.

I’m not the type to brag about my romantic conquests – goodness knows I can barely remember them all anyway – but I think it is fair to say I’ve never worked so hard to get somebody out of their clothes in my life.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

THE SMOKE HOUSE OPTION

I’m sure it seems to the average reader of this blog that my life consists of nothing but an endless series of cocktail parties and glamorous premieres, punctuated by the occasional shout of “Action” or “Cut” or “I’ll be in my trailer when you bastards have remembered your damned lines!”



Normally I would have to disagree: the lot of the low budget movie director is one of constant struggle and toil in order to bring a few fleeting moments of entertainment to the masses. But even the Galleon Slave had his few moments in the sun, and thus I found myself enjoying a well deserved break from the cinematic salt mine last weekend when I returned to sunny California and my glamorous desert home.



First, may I pass on a valuable tip? When you are having your swimming pool retiled, it is a very good idea indeed to make sure you trust your pool man.



Mine, the extraordinarily gifted Senor Saenz, came to me after a long and difficult period in my life when I simply couldn’t keep the algae off my surfaces. But one day, while sitting on the patio of a local café drinking my lunch, I suddenly realized what my problem had been all along: I had been adhering to that ridiculously Protestant notion of hiring household staff based entirely on their ABILITY and not on their LOOKS.

This, of course, had NOTHING to do with the fact that a shirtless lad of the Latin persuasion walked past, flashed a smile at me that rivaled the Fourth of July, and poured his sculpted, copper hued body into a truck with the words “CLEAR AND CLEAN POOL SERVICE” emblazoned on the side. It’s just something that occurred to me as I leapt over the patio’s wrought iron railing, ran into the street, and threw myself onto the hood of the young man’s vehicle, practically begging him to come to my house and brush my walls.

Hard to believe this was over two years ago, but since then this aquatic missionary has seen me through several life altering experiences – switching from chlorination to salination, installing a remote control device so I no longer have to actually get OUT of the pool to increase the water temperature, even overseeing something as intimate and personal as choosing the size and color of my new pool tiles. Senor Saenz has become an extremely important member of the household at 801 and returning home this past weekend to view the final result of his handiwork in my backyard put me in the right mood to enjoy the rest of my brief furlough from the spiritual mud trenches of the motion picture industry.

When one is a World Traveler such as I, one discovers that the many encounters one has with foreign locals are often nothing more than pleasant diversions from the ghastly emptiness of first class lounges, five star hotels and pockets filled with “per diem”, that lovely tax free cash often referred to by my sordid acquaintances as “hooker and drug money”. But I am delighted to report that occasionally one finds someone like my brother-in-film Rainer Matsutani--



-- one of Germany’s most gifted auteurs and one of my best friends who, along with his lovely wife Noemi, joined me and the Boyfriend for My Weekend Off.

After attending the Palm Springs Gay Pride parade--











and having a champagne-soused lunch with local jazz chanteuse Diva Denise Carter -



- we made our way into Los Angeles and the world premiere screening of my “A Dennis the Menace Christmas” movie on the Warner Brothers lot in Hollywood.



As an “indie” filmmaker, I have always heard horror stories about “THE STUDIO” and how they would “RUIN YOUR VISION” but if the way Warners treated us for the Premiere Screening is standard operating procedure - turning the back lot into a Santa’s Wonderland, complete with snow cones, hot cocoa and Christmas cookies - I say RUIN ME!!



After posing for dozens of photographs with the cast and crew – my years of being a target for the paparazzi serving me in good stead as I trotted out the five different smiles I use for such occasions – I settled into my comfortable chair in the theater alongside family and friends and proceeded to watch as the audience laughed, cried and cheered in all the right places. It felt great to know people loved the film and their applause made the dreadful conditions under which we made the picture a year ago fade even further into the dim recesses of my mind.

Well, it was either that or the celebratory martinis we had after the screening at the legendary Smoke House restaurant across the street from the Burbank studio.



Home to generations of Warner Brothers movie stars past and present – G. Clooney is such a regular here that he actually named his production company after the place – this joint is seriously old school Hollywood. While the red-leather booths are padded to a level of absurd comfort and the drinks are strong enough to make even the worst script read like Proust, the real attraction here is the clientele: faded showgirls, long forgotten stars of equally forgotten B movies, and grizzled film technicians swapping war stories about directors they’d like to assassinate.



On this night, however, there was a definite chill in the air: the Writers Guild of America had just called a strike, with their chief demand being a percentage of profits from Internet downloads of their product, and the “below the line” folks – the people who physically “make” the movies and are paid not much more than the rest of the labor force in the country – were not terribly sympathetic to the cause. Granted, writers are traditionally not the most endearing human beings in the world – there must be something about spending your every waking hour IMAGINING life instead of LIVING IT which tends to make people a little bitter I guess – but this most recent event was being discussed at the Smoke House as further evidence of their disdain for their fellow craftsmen and it was not going down well at all.



As a card-carrying member of the Writers Guild I suppose I should have a strong opinion one way or the other but, to be honest, I didn’t even vote on the strike action. I might have, had I been home to get the mail the week they sent the ballots out but as usual, given the outsourcing of the American motion picture industry due to the financial demands of the various creative guilds and production unions in Hollywood, I was in Canada. Making a movie.

And that’s where I was headed back to, right after finishing up my last few bites of the delicious Smoke House garlic bread.

Would I have preferred to stay put, maybe order another martini, and then just walk back across the street to the studio, take a nap on a cot in my office, and wake up the next morning ready to start work shooting my movie in Studio D?

You bet I would. But hey, a fella’s gotta pay his Pool Boy. No matter how cute he is.

And so, back to Vancouver. And Day One of “Ice Blues: A Donald Strachey Mystery.”