Teaser 286: You Don’t Start Movies Like This

In a very large conference room at the hotel, before two hundred and fifty seasoned veterans of the movie industry, I stood at the podium with the screenplay laid out on the dais. All the cast folks to be considered had a copy of the screenplay, which had already been rewritten with many suggestions from my fellow producers and had A-page insertions. “Thank you all for coming with such short notice. I am well aware movies don't get made like this, so welcome to my cinematic world.” I paused for the chuckles. “As executive producer I have certainly assembled a large number of executives and I'm quite confident once we conclude our little endeavor, I will own the record for producing executives. John, of course, has already conceded.” Laughs and John nodded his head. “All should be familiar with John, Drake, Will and Ken. I don't think I would have to introduce them even in Moline, for example. Gary and Bev are in charge of cast, Gary also responsible for finance, since he can wear many hats as he has ably demonstrated in the past. Aaron, Pat and Casper are your go-to producers for the crew, and there's the mother of my youngest daughter, Gloria, in marketing, not one of my more favorite occupations, but, fortunately for Gretchen, Gloria won't have a lot to do until we're close to release, so for a long while, Gretchen will able to say, 'Yay! Mommy's going to work from home!' I'm sure it will make Gretchen happy.” Laughs. I looked to Gloria beaming a smile of approval. “I'd kiss you, as the mother of our child, but maybe some people will take it the wrong way.” There were groans and Gloria's frown came from her heart. “All right. I'll fix it.” I stepped around the podium to Gloria as she stood up and I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her fully. I walked back behind the podium. “I have a long history with all of them and some of it's embarrassing.” Laughs. “Catch me at the right time and I'll share some of this embarrassing history. It won't embarrass me!”

As the laughter subsided, the actress remarked, “Every one of us is here, Al, because we miss you. We all know there is no one who will say the things you will!”

“Thankfully, you dragged Tom here today, which now means I can flirt with you shamelessly, because you know I won't do it unless Tom is present.”

While everyone was laughing, Tom shouted, “That's what I love about you, Al! You won't do that unless I'm here!”

“Why would I do it otherwise, Tom? I would have no way of knowing if I've reached my limit. When you're present, eventually you will come up to me and say, 'Haven't you hit up on my wife enough?'” Laughs. “So that I can respond, 'You're right, Tom. I'll give you thirty minutes.'” Laughs. “And you'll respond, 'Thanks, Al. I appreciate it.'” Laughs. “You get that from the incorrigible one, but you all know it. You can depend on it. You know I won't change.”

There were some comments, some quite unflattering, but I expected it. “Okay, let's get to it. All for cast consideration have a copy of the screenplay. The movie is Terms of Surrender. There may be changes to the script, though they will be minor, if nothing more than to clarify points we want to make with the movie. You also have a list of all the parts still open and the pages in the script with action and dialog corresponding to the part. We begin shooting first week of December through Sunday before Christmas, take a three-day break, shoot four more days, another three-day break, then shoot until we wrap about the last week of January. We begin shooting almost immediately after my wedding, which means my wife and her husband will be spending their honeymoon on a movie set with many of you, but that's not conventional either.”

One asked, “Are you nervous, Al?”

“About the wedding or the movie?”

“The wedding.”

“I'm not nervous in the slightest. I'm looking forward to it. I've wanted to marry my bride-to-be for decades now, although for a while it didn't seem possible, since she was already married. In truth, as things have turned out, considering I have two wives, I suppose a current marriage is not something which is insurmountable, and it certainly would be unconventional, with a husband-to-be with two wives and a bride-to-be with one husband. No one's going to argue against that type of challenge!” Laughs. “I'm looking forward to the boys all decked out in their penguin uniforms again. Thank you, gentlemen. I'll be wearing my usual dapper outfit and the bride will be wearing a spectacular gown, though I haven't seen her wearing it, due to some barrier of tradition which I can't follow. I've seen this woman without a stitch of clothing, so I don't know how a gown is going to make a difference, but I won't upset tradition.” Laughs. “And I'm not nervous about the movie either. I'm not nervous about it throwing the relationships in real life all over and up and down and sideways. I don't care about it and I don't think the leads care about it either. As I recall, it was Andrea's suggestion which led to this movie, then it was Drake's suggestion to be my character's best friend, so from my viewpoint, they started it!” Laughs. “I'm only holding them to it.” I glanced to Drake and Andrea, both smiling widely and shaking their heads.

“What we have ahead of us is a major challenge, because we're not doing the same old thing, and that task alone has a huge risk attached to it. The studios all hire marketers, no reflection on you, Gloria, since you know I do love you dearly, and there isn't one here who knows all the details of our interactions, and they'll never hear it from my lips.”

“I know the details!” Serena interrupted.

While everyone was laughing I shouted, “Not all of them, you don't, my beloved, and it's gonna stay that way for the foreseeable future!” I waited for the commotion to die down. “The studios, as we all know, hire marketers to perform polls to determine what those fine folks out there want to see in a movie. They give the people what they think they want and it's why the same movies get made over and over. The people out there, when they're asked, don't know how to band together and demand something new, something different, because they can't all agree and it's understandable. I find it intriguing Nietzsche, in a condescending tone, wrote there should always be artists who are above the fray, so to speak, whose sole task is to create art which pushes all others to consider what they haven't before. Why I find it intriguing is not its ultimate truth. I find it intriguing because Nietzsche later regretted his assertion these artists, these projectors of culture, should be held above the fray, above the general populace. His regret was mostly because he also initially asserted the general populace existed solely to serve those above the fray. That was his regret, but look at where we're at, nearly a hundred and fifty years after Nietzsche's initial opinion. Few are above the fray, few takes risks because it is potential career suicide, and the entire industry allows the people out there to dictate what they want, and since they have no collective voice or imagination to dictate what they have never been exposed to, the public always gets the same old thing. It's what they're familiar with. It's what they know to say when they're asked, 'what do you want to see and hear?' They get the same old thing. I won't do that. I will never do that. Not because I think my position is superior. It's not!”

“It's because no one is saying what you are compelled to say, Al!” Serena interrupted.

While some applauded Serena's interruption, I stared in her fiery eyes and said, “Thank you.”

The actress spoke up. “And write what you write, do what you do, go where you go, and associate with whom you associate. You said that years ago, Al-Barrak, in my presence, staring right into my eyes when you said it! And I could tell when you said it you would never compromise. You were either going to accomplish it or go out in a blaze of glory doing it. Everyone here knows this about you, you will say what no one wants to hear because it's true but it's too close for comfort, too revealing of our own failures and defects...That's why every one of us is here, Al. No one else will not only enumerate our own failings but you will also enumerate your own failings and with the very same import, and do it in an eloquent and completely innocent manner. No one else but you can do it, Al-Barrak, and I saw it in you when I knew you as Gregory. My own husband enjoys our flirting more than we do. Know why?” I only shook my head, smiling, astonished. “Because he loves you more than a brother, Al! And why do I enjoy it? Because I know exactly why you do it. You want me to never forget I deserve that level of attention from you. Do you think I don't appreciate it?”

“You mean you don't have damp dreams at night thinking about me?” I shouted amid great laughter and the actress' stern, but smiling, response. “Is this why you're all here, because it's personal?” The true, unanimous consensus was affirmative. “All right. Let's spend the next few hours filling the roles left to cast, set the rest of the crew positions, and discuss the movie and what we all hope to project through it. Let's keep in mind what each of you is already committed to, and figure out the shooting schedule so we can adjust for everyone's previous commitments. And you love me more than a brother, Tom?”

“Don't get me wrong me, Al,” Tom advised. “I love my brothers but the way I feel about you, well, it's not the same.”

“This, then, is yet another burden which the One has lifted from my shoulders, Tom. I'm not either of your parents and therefor won't be pushed to remind you blood is thicker than water, so there must be something wrong with you. They will be right, blood is thicker than water. Unfortunately, family don't know the full truth. Love is thicker than blood. It always has been and it always will be.” Tom smiled and nodded his head. I glanced at the actress and winked, while she shook her head. “I am always amazed after all these years, you two are still going strong together, even with all the crap that's been thrown at both of you, and I truly admire it. You're still together.” I paused a moment.

“One of the lesser roles is already filled, a role which includes a romantic encounter with my character, so I named her Greta, since she's also from Germany.” I glanced at John. “I couldn't resist.” He shook his head. “I talked to Greta not long ago and told her I was writing a character and using her name. 'You don't mind? You don't have any objection, do you?' And Greta said, 'No, I don't mind. I have no objection, but you're not going to use any of our experiences, are you?' And I said, 'Why would it matter? They were never confidential to you anyway.'” Laughs. “I promised her. I said she would be in the driver's seat for my next movie before we went up on stage in Basel, so the former Professor Rebekka Dietrich will perform the role of Greta. I want to introduce her, since she flew in unannounced to me last night, and she's still entitled to be called one, so, Doctor Dietrich?”

Rebekka rose and bowed her head around the room as everyone applauded, saying “Thank you” several times. When the applause ended, I advised, “Rebekka's the one I threw around in the movie, so she has demonstrated quite ably she can take a bruising, which will serve her well, playing a role opposite me again.” Laughs. “What are your immediate plans, Rebekka?”

“I have a flight back to Germany tomorrow, Al.”

“Do you have a commitment?”

“No. My schedule is free, but I didn't make any plans to stay. I didn't pack much either, not for an extended stay.”

“There are clothing boutiques in Los Angeles, Rebekka.” Laughs. “Drake knows some of the best. He and I have visited many together, where I left some of my wallet.” Laughs. “Would you put up Rebekka, Serena?”

“Of course.”

“If it's not too burdensome, Rebekka, now that you're here, stay. We'll try to get your scenes in early and you can be back in Germany before the holidays.”

Rebekka smiled, nodded her head and softly said, “Thank you.”

I leaned on the dais. “I want everyone to know how the movie will compensate you, should you become involved in any way. I will not dictate to you what you should accept. I am very well aware of your history, all of you. Trust me. Word gets around. I have a firm twenty million dollar budget and I cannot and will not exceed it, which means cast and crew positions commanding millions of dollars are not going to happen.” I stood upright and walked over to a table where my coffee cup rested, picked it up and sipped from it. “What we did with the presentation movie was give everyone the option for ownership. We paid everyone a salary for two months, which went against the owner's stake if they accepted it. Everyone did and I can say now they're all quite wealthy, which pleases me greatly. One did so well she soon resigned her professorship, and now does those things she really dreamed of doing her whole life, and that pleases me greatly, too. The documentary was different, since it was all a non-profit endeavor, so no one has gotten anything from it, except Jeremy, who worked for scale for over a year, and David and Conrad edited, also for scale. In this business, however, movies are typically owned by a core group of producers. Not this one. Because we have to respect the various overseeing bodies in this business, no one can work for free, and I would never suggest it anyway, but should you wish to work for scale, you will choose the owner option. You have already met my requirement to be an owner by working for scale and should the movie lose money it will never come out of any owner's pockets. I have this contingency covered. That's what insurance is for.” Laughs. “Should you work for more than scale, for whatever amount to which we have mutually agreed, you can still be an owner. Your owner stake, however, will be reduced by the difference between what you were paid and what you would have earned working for scale. I will do it this way to protect those who do work for scale and become owners.”

There were murmurs around the room as I walked back to the podium and leaned against it. “The biggest push back I get by doing it this way, where each owner has an equal stake, is many in the business demand, or should I say prefer, to receive a bigger stake, for various reasons, all of which you already know, but I won't do it. It's too complicated, since I'm the one who has to tangle with everyone, and I have to set some kind of limit so there's some profit to share with the rest who are not in an exalted position, so I won't do it. If it is an issue for you, then we won't reach an agreement, and I'll find somebody else. Yes, it smacks of egalitarian, and with potentially hundreds sharing equally, for many of you it could be a paltry sum to which you are unaccustomed. I can't tell you what you have to decide in good conscience. I can only tell you what I will do and that is non-negotiable. You will, of course, receive the residuals you have always been entitled. That I cannot change nor would I try.”

I waited for a few moments allowing some to discuss this among themselves. “Let me tell you what I can achieve if I keep up-front compensation low, as executive producer. We have a projected target amount. If the actual comes in much lower, we have a lot more freedom to experiment while we shoot. We can have more takes, we can shoot scenes in different ways, and we can add days for shooting because we can cover the additional expense of renting the studio. We can also experiment in post-production. You all know what we can do when we keep expenses under budget. Many of you have already been there and done that.

“For those of you considering roles, this last item pertains to you exclusively. Only one of you has worked with me as a director, so you have no clue what to expect, other than the more restrained directing from the two movies released earlier this year. Maybe Serena has some idea of how I will direct, and I appreciate Carey's honest reflections about what occurred on our set. Drake and Diane and Jennifer, to a lesser extent, have some idea, but you deserve to know how I will proceed on the set. Every actor falls into one of three categories when it comes time to discuss and prepare for a scene. Some actors have a firm interpretation of their character and how they want to do it. Some actors have no desire to be so interpretive and simply want a director to tell them what to do. The rest fall somewhere in the middle, so some scenes they have a strong idea of interpretation, and others want some direction. I have no clue which category any of you will fall into, so for your first appearance on my set, I will give you the opportunity to show me which category you fall into. I will ask you, 'How do you want to do this?' From your initial response, I'll know which category you fall into and will treat you appropriately from then on. I don't care what other directors say or think when it comes to actors. This isn't their movie. This is my movie. Every actor is different and must be treated accordingly. Every successful project I led all had one thing in common. Each person under me was directed by me dependent upon their comfort level, what they could accomplish on their own versus what I would actively have to direct them toward. That's why actors are all different. Each has a different comfort level for what they can do on their own.

“On the set you'll also discover I perform very little technical discussion with the cinematographer's crew and the lighting engineer. They produce the aesthetics aspect of a movie, the artistic feel. I have little interest in it. The prevailing interest I have in making a movie is telling the story, because the story is king. You, as actors, tell the story, so you, as actors, will always be my focus. The aesthetics portion of a movie is fluff, in my opinion, and that will always be my opinion about it. I'm not dismissing aesthetics, but it will never be my focus. I know how I want a scene, especially as we have discussed as a whole, actors, camera people, lighting, to look like on the big screen. I can see it in my mind before we even shoot it. I tell the cinematographer how I want the camera to record it, I tell the lighting engineer how I want the lighting to look like on the big screen, and I expect both crews to produce their technical aspects accordingly. I'll be able to see right on a screen after we shoot if it's the look I want. I don't care about the technical aesthetics. I care about the actors' portrayals, each actor's actions. That's how the story gets told. You, as actors, are my primary focus. If you mess up, as you will,” laughs, “no matter how disappointed I may feel, I will never berate you. I will probably tease you mercilessly,” more laughs, “though if you have any self-respect at all, you will turn it around and tease me mercilessly. Everyone gets a good laugh, all the tension evaporates, and then it's 'All right. Let's do it again.'” Laughs. “If you want to get a real idea of how merciless the teasing can go back and forth, I strongly suggest you be on the set with Andrea, because she and I will be going at it big time!”

“And since it's taken so long to get this movie going, Al,” Andrea loudly proclaimed, “I have been saving every possible tease, insult and offensive remark I can think of, so you better be ready, because I will.”

The room exploded in laughter. I waited until I could be heard. “And all of you will frequently hear me say, 'Can someone put a muzzle on that woman, because I have so little acting experience I have to think people to do this, and it is increasingly difficult for me to think with her constant jabber?'”Andrea puckered my way, wearing her wide, teasing smile, thus kissing me off.

We decided the easiest and fairest method to proceed, for the cast, was to announce a role and ask who might be considering it. We didn't rush through any of them. We let everyone take the time to read each role, considering the other roles included in the scenes. Often, when there was more than one actor or actress considering the role in question, those actors and actresses would discuss it between themselves and reach an agreement on their own, leaving it to only one while the others deferred. Surprisingly, to all of us producing, there really wasn't any contention for any role. Some even declined every role and instead wanted to be in scenes as extras, including Jeff.

“I don't want a speaking role, Al,” Jeff explained. “I only want to be in a scene as an extra with a blank expression on my face. I still get ownership, don't I?”

“Of course, but you'll have to work for scale.”

“Can you afford a hundred and fifty dollars, Al? Wouldn't it stretch your budget?”

“We'll make do, Jeff.”

All on the crew side gathered with Aaron or Pat or Casper, depending on their positions. It all went very smoothly. We broke for lunch and it was light-hearted and humorous and enjoyable, like a big party. By late afternoon all the roles were cast, there would be some schedule decisions to account for those with previous commitments, and we promised everyone a shooting schedule the weekend following Thanksgiving. The nearly unanimous impression everyone left with was: why aren't more movies in Hollywood made like this? I heard it from every one of the producers expressed almost exactly that way, from Andrea, from Serena, from the actress, Tom, even Jeff. I told every one of them the same thing. “Wait until you report on my set. If you enjoyed and were impressed with how this afternoon proceeded, don't be late! You won't want to miss any of it!”

As shuffling around the room prevailed near four in the afternoon and everyone was slowly gathering their items or conducting friendly banter, I stepped back to the podium and loudly announced, “I want to thank you all for taking the time to come here and help us get the movie rolling. I have a mountain of gratitude now which I will probably be unable to return completely, so I hope none of you live to regret it. I imagine most of you won't, simply because your heart's in the right place, something I've known about all of you from the moment I met you. It's why I invited you...When I first came here, I was invited, too. Serena invited me. Obviously, she had no idea what she was letting into her house.” Laughs. “She probably has one or two regrets, and I believe she's marrying me so she can act on those regrets.”
“You can count on that, little boy!” Serena shouted to immense laughter.

I nodded my head, knowing she meant it. “But on the drive to that invitation, I considered I may meet a lot of folks in this business and I suspected many of them would not be completely out of it and none of you are completely out of it...except for Jeff.” Jeff smiled, waiting. “In Jeff's defense, we both agree normal is overrated. Is that still true, Jeff?”

“What was it you said, Al? I wasn't listening,” Jeff responded calmly, feigning innocence.

I smiled widely. “I thought I was the only one.”

“That's what you told me about your speech at the Oscars!” Ironman shouted.

Again, I smiled widely. “A great Master said, in effect, words are a shadow of reality. They are a pretext. It is the inner bond which draws two people together. I hold, and I can assure you it is a very tight grip, a large number of inner bonds with those of you in this room, and I will create new ones, too. Perhaps when we wrap this in January many of you will have created new ones, because a screenplay, a movie, a story, is still only words, only a pretext. The inner bond is the reality and if you nurture it, cherish it for what it is, those inner bonds last a lifetime.” I had become serious but I lightened up. “Cast who are available will meet the first Monday of December at Paramount. I honestly do not know why those guys over there like me and continue to work with me. I'm sure there's some unfathomable reason, as Jeff constantly reminds me about the guys at Fox L.A., but I can't figure it out. Anyway, holding the script run-through on Monday gives me a couple days to recover from Friday before,” laughs, “though I won't need any recovery. Serena will need the time to recover, because she's gonna need it to consider, 'Why did I do this and why did I do it willingly?' I am certain she will need a full forty-eight hours for that!” Serena frowned, with her lips turned up, and several of the women near her gave her some playful pushes.

“You may recall from years before what I said on Oprah's show, so here's my final deviation from convention. There will be no days of shooting which extend beyond twelve hours. That is a disadvantage and does put more pressure on all of us, but I was adamant then about twelve-hour shooting days and this has never diminished. The disadvantage as most of you already understand is we rent the studio by the day and will get no break for using it for a lesser number of hours per day. Obviously it means we'll be shooting for a longer number of days than any other movie would need. However, I do have a backup plan.” I smiled widely. “You know I've thought this out!” Laughs. “There were no days of shooting beyond twelve hours of the background videos for the Basel presentation. However, the camera crews all worked beyond twelve hours every day. We edited those scenes as we went along, so we spent far less time in post-production. The documentary was never shot as though on a movie set so many of those shooting days exceeded twelve hours. The actors were those simply performing their work without regard to the camera and the only crew member was Jeremy, who used lighting and mikes only in sit-down interviews, and Jeremy always knew his limits and never exceeded them. When we begin shooting we will wrap each day at twelve hours, after which we will edit the dailies as we go along. It means the cinematographers and I will all work more than twelve hours every day. We have discussed it, they all know their limits, and I know mine. For keeping the shooting to twelve hours, we will spend less time in post-production, and that's how we'll make up for it.” I paused as I glanced around the room, noting some of the admiring expressions. “Every one of you here has been on a set when someone got hurt. All of you know what it looked like and how it felt. I saw it and felt it, too. I prefer to never see or feel it again. Twelve-hour shooting days are the maximum and will easily be the norm. We will never exceed it.

“One final note: please do not refer to John Drury as 'Number Two.'” The whole room roared. When it calmed down a bit I loudly proclaimed, “Not to his face!” More laughs. “What you call him behind his back,” and I engaged John's gaze directly, “I have no control over, John.” John shook his head and scratched it nervously. “What I can control is how I refer to him behind his back, so for everyone here, when you hear me say, 'Number Two,' now you know to whom I refer,” and I looked back to John and wagged my finger, “because there's no excuse, John Drury, for going out the in door. No excuse!” All were beginning to rise and move out and John still sat looking back to me with a frown but with the corners of his mouth turned up. “Let's get on with our lives! Thank you!”

- Just Desserts, Segment Thirty-FivePainting an Alternate Hollywood Portrait” by Gregory R. Schussele, © 2021 contact me, as always: schussprose@gmail.com