I’m coming up on my 17th anniversary in Hong Kong. A little further down the line is the 10th anniversary of this blog. I’m in a bad mood this morning. Consider this post therapy. Or a list of bad decisions.
Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, I decided I wanted to be a movie director. Looking back at it now, I think I reached this decision because I loved watching movies and it gave me an excuse for that.
When I was in high school I joined an independent filmmakers cooperative on Rivington Street, when Rivington Street was the exact opposite of the upscale hipster location it is today. A few times a week after school I’d take the subway down to this area where I had to step over and around broken glass, used hypodermic needles, junkies and drunks to get to this storefront “school” where they taught me how to use a 16mm camera and a Moviola. I don’t recall ever actually making any films there. Actually I don’t recall much from those days at all.
At the same time, I was playing piano and bass. My parents started me in on piano lessons around the age of 7 or 8. In junior high school, where my choice was between school orchestra or shop, I took up the double bass. I chose this because everyone wanted violin or clarinet (go figure), no one wanted bass, and I thought I could stand out this way. I did. The shortage of double bass players meant that somehow I got into a high school orchestra while I was still in junior high. It was the Bronx Borough Wide Symphony Orchestra and it was a year in which they (we) would play our annual concert at Carnegie Hall. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!” I didn’t practice much. There just weren’t many bass players to choose from. So I played Carnegie Hall when I was 14. I also got a cheap electric bass guitar and despite having zero understanding of it at all, I tried to join or form a band. I even had an ad in Rolling Stone (which at the time did free classifieds for musicians) about wanting to form a band modeled after the Bonzo Dog Band, a huge favorite of mine at the time. That never got off the ground, no big surprise.
For college (or university, depending on where you’re from) I had my heart set on going to UCLA or USC but my parents said California was too far away. So I got into NYU’s film school, I was accepted for early admission, which was sort of a big thing.
My first semester, there was a course on still photography that went for 8 hours a day, twice a week. Second semester, there was a course “intro to filmmaking” that also went 8 hours a day. The teacher decided that this would be perfect for the entire class to do mescaline together, as he saw psychedelic drugs as essential to understanding the film experience. The dean kept rejecting his request for some reason.
I got a summer job working at the restaurant at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The guys running it had a kosher deli nearby and hired me because they owed my parents a favor. They hated me and I hated them. Eventually they tossed me out of the restaurant and had me pushing a hot dog cart through the park. By early August I quit and took off for London for 3 weeks with a friend.
Second year at NYU, I had the legendary Haig Manoogian as a teacher. He’s one of those people not easily forgotten. (Raging Bull was dedicated to him.) I remember doing a documentary on my then-piano teacher Barry Goldberg and a moody thing shot in a hundred year old synagogue using Tim Buckley’s Star Sailor as a soundtrack. I don’t think Haig was impressed by my stuff. I started spending most of my time at WNYU, the school’s radio station, dj’ing a couple of times a week. I’d also shot some photos of David Peel and he liked them so I occasionally hung out with his odd assortment of friends.
I was also working part time as a grillman at this bar and restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s. It was right down the street from NYU’s “main building.” Since I was commuting to school rather than living in the dorm, I thought this would be a good chance to meet other students. It turned out that this was more of a lowlife sort of spot, lots of dealers, junkies, hookers, scammers and the occasional odd celebrity. One day I was driving through the east village and spotted a junkie hooker in a doorway and thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I made her a cheeseburger last night.” And then I thought to myself, “Time to get out of New York.”
But first, a summer job. I got this list of every film production house in New York, divided it up geographically, put on a suit and tie, and knocked on every door and left a resume at the front desk. I got hired by Larry Lindberg Productions. They were doing a weekly 30 minute sports magazine show for CBS called CBS Sports Illustrated. I was hired as a gopher and assistant editor and ended up cutting one piece that got on the air. Larry was an interesting guy and the two “real” editors there taught me a lot, including how to use one of the newer flatbed editing machines. One of the things there was that they needed music as soundtracks to their 5 minute segments but they didn’t know anything about current music. I brought in a lot of my records; they liked Deep Purple and Yes. They told me I could have a job there again the following summer but for some reason I never went back. I should have.
I had friends going to school in Boston so I looked for a Boston school where I could major in film and found Emerson College. The film school was pretty shitty there and I think in two years there I made one 5-minute vampire movie. Back in those days Boston had a lot of repertory movie theaters, double bills of classic movies for $1, and I went to the movies almost every day. I almost never went to classes. I also started working for Boston promoter Don Law; I was head usher for awhile at the 3,000 seat Orpheum Theater and did security at another theater, name I can’t remember, and also the occasional show at the much larger Boston Garden. Basically I got to see just about every band that came through Boston in those two years – and got paid for it.
Somehow, I graduated on the Dean’s List. I say “somehow” because I don’t think I went to too many classes in those two years.
Back to New York, reading the trades, and I got a job as a production assistant on a kung fu/monster/blacksploitation film called The Devil’s Express, which was mostly shot in the subway tunnels in Brooklyn.
When that finished, I took an office job at a place called Physicians Radio Network. Doctors would fill out these postcards in medical magazines, this company would send them these free crappy radios that only played their network, filled with ads from drug companies. I sat and did something with filing these cards all day long.
Another ad, another film job, somehow I ended up as assistant cameraman on a 35mm feature film – an XXX-rated hard core porn called Rollerbabies. The director was this guy who had a PhD in chemistry but decided he wanted to make movies. The only people who would hire him were Mafia types who’d give him 25k and he’d give them a movie. So the budget was low as his “salary” was basically whatever was left over from that 25k after the film was made. The script was written by a guy who was moonlighting from Mad Magazine. No one in it could act so most of the jokes were jettisoned. The director’s “trademark” was a pull-out-slow-motion-cum-shot. He got busted on his next film for using under-age talent.
Meanwhile I couldn’t get busted and I couldn’t get a job. So I took a summer job as a camp counselor, a camp in the Poconos, and that’s where I met my first wife.
Back after the summer, I put on the suit and tie and started banging on doors again. This time a lot of places told me I needed to be in a union. None of the film unions would accept me, even as an apprentice, because I either didn’t already have a job or I didn’t already have relatives in the union.
Eventually I got hired part time by Bob Gaffney Productions. Bob was a director/cameraman doing TV commercials – Clio-award winning commercials for global brands. First they brought me in to edit the house reel – splicing together commercials so they could send reels of film to ad agencies to get jobs. Yeah, it was like that once. I got to PA on a few location shoots too. Then they started calling me to fill in as the receptionist whenever their full time one got sick. When she quit her job, I asked them to give me the job permanently. “But it’s not a film job, you won’t be happy, you won’t get to go on shoots.” “But I’ll be happy getting a regular paycheck!” So they agreed and I had my first full time job at the age of 24, as a receptionist. I’m sure my parents were thrilled.
One day the phone rang. “Bob Gaffney please.” “May I ask who is calling?” “Stanley Kubrick.” WTF?
And so I learned a bit more about Bob’s history. Bob started out shooting March of Time documentaries. He’d done work for the CIA – which he told us about and which I will not write about here. He directed Orson Welles’ first TV commercial. He directed cult favorite Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.
For Kubrick, he’d shot second unit stuff for Lolita, Strangelove and 2001. He was the producer for the never-finished Napoleon. He’d designed the super low light lenses for Barry Lyndon. Working on Napoleon soured him on feature films and he decided doing commercials was easier. Every time Stanley would start a new film, he’d call Bob and try to get him to come to work for him again. This time the film was to be The Shining. Barry Lyndon had tanked at the box office and Stanley thought he needed a sure-fire hit otherwise he’d lose creative control and final cut. He hated the book and thought if he filmed the ending as written the audience would run out of the theater laughing. So our first task was to read the book and suggest alternate endings.
Stanley thought he might move back to the U.S. to shoot the picture. Since he wouldn’t fly – and since there was no Internet – I had to collect every train schedule and every Mobil Travel Guide and mail them to him in the UK. He stayed in London. We tested the Steadicam for him and our office served as the office for the second unit crew whenever they were in transit between Oregon and London. Whatever work I did on this film was not enough to rate a screen credit. I did get to meet a lot of people who’d worked with him for a decade or more. Few had any good things to say about him yet they kept working for him film after film.
The other thing with Stanley that he was convinced that as a famous American living in London, he was a potential target for the IRA. He thought they would try to kidnap his children. So every two days he had his phone number changed. I have no idea why he thought that would be effective. So every time he called it was always, “Hi Stanley, what’s your phone number today?”
Gaffney decided to promote me away from the receptionist desk. I was told that I would either be trained to become an associate producer or business manager. I had no say in the matter. His current business manager was his father-in-law, approaching 65 years old. So guess which job they gave me? I became business manager of one of the top ten commercial director/cameramen in the U.S., with absolutely no background for it. Why? Because I worked cheap. However, it seemed to seriously piss him off that I would show up for work every day in jeans, t-shirts and cowboy boots but that I could get short-term bank loans at lower interest rates than his father-in-law had done.
I didn’t much like the job and I didn’t like other things going on in the office that I don’t feel comfortable writing about. I left there after four years. And I was screwed. No production house in New York wanted to hire me as a business manager because they didn’t believe that someone so young and unqualified had done that job. No production house in New York wanted to hire me for film work because I hadn’t been on a shoot in more than two years. And the unions still weren’t willing to take me.
My assistant at Gaffney had introduced me to a young British songwriter. He had a publishing contract with Capitol and wanted to put a band together. I agreed to manage him and funded the entire thing with credit cards. We found three more musicians, I bought them equipment and a rehearsal space, I got them gigs at places like CBGB’s and used a connection to get them into NYC’s famed Record Plant to record demos.
At the same time, I was working at my cousin’s store that was right on the borderline between Columbia University and Harlem. I was selling TVs and stereos, delivering stuff into the projects, repairing TVs and covering for him while he ran off doing various things that I probably shouldn’t be writing about.
The whole thing sucked. The record companies came down to see the band and they all said the same thing. “They’re good but they’re at least a year away.” The band didn’t want to rehearse, they didn’t want to try and get gigs on their own, my cut from their gigs was usually around $25 a night. I walked away from them, deeply in debt. Eventually they got picked up by King Crimson’s management company and released one EP on A&M Records and, as far as I can tell, none of them were ever heard from again.
This is getting rather long so I’ll take a break here.