Friday, September 30, 2011

The King and the Queen of “The Good Wife”

The Good Wife, the much-honored CBS dramatic series, has just kicked off its third season with a provocative new poster of star Julianna Margulies. A few weeks ago, Margulies picked up an Emmy for her role as a politician’s wife who returns to her legal career after her husband is disgraced in a sex scandal. Among the nominees in the Outstanding Drama Series category were the show’s creators, Robert and Michelle King. I know them both from my days at Concorde-New Horizons. Funny how working for Roger Corman can prepare you for bigger and better things.

Robert King’s association with Roger Corman started back in 1988. Robert’s entry into the Corman world began with The Nest, a film produced by Roger’s wife Julie that featured no-name actors battling a slew of killer cockroaches. (I’m still saving one of those plastic cockroaches that served as our special effects.) Robert got involved with The Nest after another writer was fired. Production was due to start in six weeks, and Julie was in a frenzy. King, who had never before earned a screenwriting credit, showed up at the Concorde office, thinking he was going to pitch his concept. Instead he was hired on the spot, for the princely sum of $3000, and hustled into a room where he was asked to crank out a story outline. In that same room, someone was casting body doubles for Big Bad Mama II, and another staffer was on the phone trying to round up a flock of chickens. For King, this first day epitomized Concorde: “an insane place where no one paid attention to you . . . . Everybody did their own thing and it was a creative hotbed, but no one took it very seriously.”

On the strength of The Nest, Robert was hired by Roger Corman to crank out Silk 2 (a Manila quickie about a sexy lady cop) and Bloodfist (a well-crafted rip-off of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s KickBoxer that was later remade by Concorde at least four more times). It wasn’t long before Robert moved on to big studio projects. One was the ill-fated Cutthroat Island, a box-office flop of historic proportions. He was also a writer and fledgling producer on Vertical Limit, a popular thriller about mountain-climbing, before finding his biggest success in television. Though Robert has moved far beyond Corman-level budgets, he insisted to me that the Concorde experience was formative for him as a writer: “I procrastinate right up to a deadline, and then force the deadline to keep me creative. That’s a very big Corman technique, which is—we need it now! Go do it!” Robert is convinced that he does his best work with his back against the wall, relying on raw panic to free him of rules and expectations. Still, though Concorde taught him practical filmmaking, he explains he was never able to use his Concorde features as industry calling cards: “You don’t show the cockroach script; you don’t show the cockroach movie. You take what you learned, and go on from there.”

On The Good Wife, marriage doesn’t fare so well. But I’m happy to report that some marriages do work out. When I first met Michelle King, she was trying to land a lowly job as Julie Corman’s assistant. But somewhere along the line, she and Robert began to write together, and the rest is television history. How nice that a romantic partnership sparked a creative partnership that has paid big dividends.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Punctilious about Punctuation

I’ve just been informed that September 24 was National Punctuation Day. Who knew? When I got the word, it was too late to throw a party, so I’m celebrating belatedly. Though I write about movies and moviemaking, I started out as an English major. And, as fans of Garrison Keillor are well aware, we English majors are a sensitive breed. (We may not be employable, but -- when it comes to English usage -- we never swerve from the path of linguistic correctness. What, never? Well, hardly ever.) So here’s my tribute to the role played by punctuation, and proofreading in general, within Hollywood.

It was my good fortune, as a UCLA doctoral candidate in English, to be hired by Roger Corman to assist in the making of exploitation films. Needless to say, Corman’s subject matter was rather different from what I encountered in graduate seminars on Macbeth and Moby Dick. (Or maybe not so different. Sex, violence . . . it’s just that Shakespeare and Melville used much fancier language.) My job as story editor included readying scripts for production. That’s when the English major in me took over. Of course I understood about dialogue: that characters need to speak colloquially, even idiosyncratically, to convey their essence to the audience. But I insisted that, when it came to stage directions and descriptive passages, everything be grammatically impeccable. And, of course, correctly spelled and punctuated.

Some of the writers with whom I worked balked at my insistence that their scripts be error-free. Writer-director Jim Wynorski (responsible for Chopping Mall and such later masterpieces as The Bare Wench Project) griped that since “you don’t shoot punctuation,” there was really no need to stress out about verbal correctness. Maybe so. But I would remind Jim that scripts (even Roger Corman scripts) are widely circulated. They are read by actors, agents, managers, directors, producers, and distributors. At least some of these folks were English majors too, once upon a time. Several Hollywood players have told me that when they spot a language error in a script submission, it’s like a red flag. When they come across two or three, they stop reading.

Punctuation exists in the first place to promote clarity. Otherwise, a phrase like “Let’s eat Grandma” is easily misunderstood. It’s especially counterproductive when a gaffe involving punctuation or spelling gives a reader the giggles. I still recall a letter in which a prospective Corman writer tried to interest me in a Vietnam War drama that climaxed in “a scene of wonton destruction.” All I could picture was American grunts and Viet Cong on the field of battle, pelting one another with Chinese dumplings. Ooops! And a spell-checker would never have caught that error. Nor, of course, the misplaced apostrophe in the slippery homophones its and it’s.

I urge my readers to check out the National Punctuation Day site, which offers many entertaining features. Meanwhile, I’ll just contemplate my secret desire to slip into a mask and tights, then -- as the Apostrophe Avenger -- invade shopping malls at midnight to correct badly-punctuated signage. I’ll admit, though, that while serving as Concorde’s resident intellectual, I once deliberately wrote an apostrophe error into a script. It involved a scene description: two salt-of-the-earth characters were living in a cozy mountain cabin decorated with one of those little wooden signs proclaiming “The Daltons.” I added an apostrophe before the “s,” shocking the author, who knew this was incorrect. Yes, I said, but these characters were exactly the type who would make that egregious goof.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Drive Me Crazy (on the streets of L.A.)

What could be more L.A. than a film about driving? I just saw Drive, the new Ryan Gosling flick that won a major award for director Nicolas Winding Refn at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Drive, a somewhat curious blend of brutality and sentimentality, doesn’t always make sense, but it’s riveting, nonetheless. I’m certain what the Cannes judges liked about Drive is its unerring sense of style. I myself responded strongly to Refn’s vision of my hometown in a film-noir mood.

Gosling’s role is that of an über-driver, a master of the road who can fix cars, do movie stuntwork, and moonlight as a getaway man who helps nogoodniks elude the cops. That last job of course requires special talent. I recently tried to link up with a fellow biographer. Accustomed to tooling around Nashua, New Hampshire, this savvy woman found herself completely baffled by L.A.’s geographical sprawl. For her the distances between such SoCal destinations as Woodland Hills, Santa Monica, Rosemead, and Long Beach—not to mention the complexity of our freeway system and the vagaries of rush-hour traffic—must have seemed thoroughly daunting. Who can blame her? My knowledge of L.A. driving habits ramped up the pleasure I took in watching Gosling effortlessly maneuver through the city’s mean streets, with never a wrong turn or wasted motion.

Much of Drive alternates between the nocturnal glitter of Downtown L.A. and the blue-collar seediness of the area surrounding MacArthur Park. It makes sense that these characters would live and work in that vicinity, and that our protagonist would be able to contemplate the downtown cityscape from his apartment window. Kenneth Turan, in his L.A. Times review, pinpointed the Big 6 supermarket at which several characters shop. Personally, I couldn’t identify many exact locations, but one of the film’s strengths for me is that its geography has clearly been carefully considered. The L.A. of Drive seems like a real place, and when Gosling gets behind the wheel I understand where he’s going.

This was my problem with another recent Ryan Gosling movie. Crazy Stupid Love struck me as a film about L.A. made by people who’ve never lived in L.A., which (given the nature of the entertainment industry) is a crazy, stupid thought indeed. Here’s my evidence: Steve Carrell as a successful insurance guy lives in a palatial suburban home with a wide expanse of lawn and some foothills in the distance. Given the size of his house and lot, coupled with the topographical features of the area, he’s got to be living deep in the San Fernando Valley. He connects with ladies’ man Gosling in a bar that doesn’t look to be far from his home, but for some reason they make an appointment to meet in Century City, near Beverly Hills. Much later, at a time of charged emotions all around, various Carrell neighbors and family members are shown driving through what looks like a well-known Beverly Hills residential intersection. Does all of this matter? Probably not for most audiences, but for me the inauthenticity of the landscape proved a major distraction. And I would argue that a film that’s sloppy about its sense of place risks giving the impression that it’s set in neverneverland.

I want my L.A. films to feel like L.A. Whether this means glamour or grit, L.A. has it all. That’s partly why the movie industry came here in the first place. Now that so many movies are shot out of town, it seems all the more important for the land of the smoggy palm to show off its own true self.

(By the way, I’ve just discovered that L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, agrees with me on Drive. He’s published a very smart article on the film’s authentic sense of its surroundings. Enjoy!)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Historica: Made in Japan, for Fans of Jidaigeki

I’ve known Ken Takahashi since he was a mischievous three-year-old, and I was a Junior Year Abroad student rooming with his aunt in Tokyo. Many’s the weekend Ken-chan, his big brother Dai-chan, and Bebu-chan (that’s me!) would go on family excursions, romp in the backyard, and watch silly shows on TV. I never dreamed back then that both of us would grow up to make movies.

On my most recent trip to the ancient city of Kyoto, a very grown-up Ken gave me a tour of the legendary Toei Studios, where he serves as production manager. These days Toei operates its own theme park, a sort of pint-sized Universal Studios, where visitors can hang out with costumed actors on a Tokugawa-era Japanese street, watch a high-energy ninja show, and explore the origins of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. But I was privileged to go behind the scenes, discovering a self-contained world that must resemble, in miniature, the Hollywood studios of the 1930s.

Toei, which has been making film for some 90 years, has it all: a costume shop; a huge assortment of props and decorative pieces; a martial arts dojo; a staff of calligraphers who turn out appropriate signage; some beautifully-detailed standing sets. With jidaigeki (period drama) not as popular as it once was, the honchos at Toei have come to realize that taking full advantage of their facilities requires some creative thinking. Enter Historica to fill the void.

The full name of Historica is Kyoto Historica International Film Festival. Three years old, it is an ambitious combination of film screenings, talks by celebrated makers of historical dramas, and activities designed (in the words of Historica’s hosts) “to bring to Kyoto historically themed content from around the world, encompassing film, anime, games, music, dance, costumes and food.” This includes the opportunity for “cosplay,” a Japanese-English word that’s new to me: basically, you get to dress up to reflect the period of your choice, in the company of others who enjoy taking a Renaissance Pleasure Faire-style approach to the past. Toei’s picturesque Edo houses and alleyways are just the place to indulge your inner Toshiro Mifune (or Sonny Chiba).

Historica will unspool in several Kyoto locales from November 19 through December 1, 2011. One special four-day period (November 28-December 1) will include the Kyoto Filmmakers’ Lab, an intimate hands-on workshop for young filmmakers of all nations who aspire to make epics of the samurai sort. To be accepted for the lab, you must submit a sample of your work, and be able to communicate in English. (Whew!) Last year’s participants—who shot a period film under expert supervision—came from such varied lands as Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Korea, Lithuania, Lesotho, Macedonia, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam. If you’re one of the lucky few who make the cut, you’ll receive partial travel expenses of 60,000 yen, and your housing will be provided too. So what are you waiting for? Applications for the lab are due by October 17. Whether you’re interested in the lab or the film festival, the place to start is Historica’s English-language website.

Ken Takahashi, whose brainchild this is, has become the point person for the entire Historica project. That’s why, at age 46, he is working on his English language skills, which have been much neglected since his school days. So far, as he’s quick to point out, he’s merely proficient in “Kenglish.” But if you have questions for him, he’ll be glad to attempt an answer.

Tell him Bebu sent you.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Straw Dogs Bark Again

I’m not in a rush to see the new Straw Dogs. Though writer/director Rod Lurie has some excellent credentials, I have no great desire to check out his take on the Sam Peckinpah original, which so powerfully illustrated the way a man can turn into an animal when sufficiently provoked. Not that I remember everything about that 1971 film. What I do remember is Dustin Hoffman—as a bookish intellectual—suddenly erupting into a murderous rage once thugs threaten his household. And I remember most vividly my mild-mannered spouse-to-be telling me, after the lights came up, that no one had better mess with us on the way home. I think he was truly frightened by the intensity of his own reaction..

I can’t help being boggled by Hollywood’s passion for do-overs. Obviously, I understand the pragmatic side of it: ever-cautious studios like their movies to be pre-sold, so they greenlight projects that audiences will find familiar. This often means combing the archives for classic films that can be given a modern spin. Sometimes the process results in a new level of meaning. Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002) started with All That Heaven Allows, a 1955 Douglas Sirk melodrama about an illicit romance, then added racial and sexual elements that gave the familiar story intriguing new dimensions. And some properties don’t seem to suffer by being updated once a generation. A Star is Born—about an actor on his way down who marries an actress on her way up—first appeared in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. Judy Garland and James Mason played the roles in 1954, as did Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (in a music industry version) in 1976. And there are rumors that a Beyoncé Knowles adaptation is on its way.

No matter how that goes, I think A Star is Born will survive. But why the eagerness to re-do Straw Dogs? Why, for that matter, did Gus Van Sant feel compelled to do a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho? And why did Jonathan Demme decide the world needed another cut at The Manchurian Candidate? As a Baby Boomer in good standing, I don’t like anyone tampering with “my” films. There was even a recent plan, involving Disney and Robert Zemeckis, to launch a 3-D motion-capture version of Yellow Submarine. Is nothing sacred? One good result of our bad economy: the project sank long before it could set sail.

Roger Corman has never been shy about plundering his own filmography for new material. When I was his story editor, I was surprised by his willingness to take movies he’d directed in his heyday (like Not of this Earth) and hand them over to bright young newcomers. Critics often praise 1964’s Masque of the Red Death as perhaps Roger’s finest directorial effort, but he had no problem commissioning a re-make in 1989. A 1995 pact with Showtime for a string of TV movies made him even more eager to exploit the contents of his film library. Director Joe Dante is still outraged by what was done with his 1978 New World feature, Piranha: “[Roger] simply took the exact same script, word for word, hired a kid to shoot it, used all the special effects from the old movie, and the only thing he didn’t do is he didn’t remind them it was supposed to be funny. And so it’s a totally straight version of a movie that was done tongue-in-cheek originally. And it’s unwatchable.”

“Unwatchable,” alas, is a word that often applies when filmmakers try to recapture the movie magic of another era.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Sound of Silence: Heartfelt Words for a Quiet Morning

It was a bit startling to hear, amid the solemn pomp of Sunday’s 9/11 commemorative service at Ground Zero, Paul Simon crooning a particularly mournful version of “The Sound of Silence.” That song has been a part of my personal soundtrack since the Sixties, and I suspect that holds true for most of the Baby Boom generation.

“The Sound of Silence,” written by Simon in February 1964, was first recorded by Simon and Garfunkel for their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. I’m told Simon was responding partly to John F. Kennedy’s assassination two months earlier and partly to the nocturnal stillness of the household bathroom whose echo-chamber effects he found inspirational. In any case, the song soon became popular at folk clubs and on the radio, leading to a more rock-inflected remix in 1965. But after 1967, “The Sound of Silence” would be forever associated with The Graduate, a movie that Baby Boomers across the nation quickly took to their hearts.

Director Mike Nichols’ choice of “The Sound of Silence” and other Simon and Garfunkel tunes to score The Graduate was groundbreaking. He had been listening to the duo’s albums while working on the film’s script, believing that their gentle melancholy fit his story of a disenchanted young man coming home from college to enter his parents’ world. Eventually, Nichols hired Simon to compose a score, but ended up with only one song, the jaunty “Mrs. Robinson” (hey, hey, hey). The rest of the film incorporates existing Simon and Garfunkel songs in a way that was brand-new to movies. Until 1967, American movie music was typically orchestral, and was commissioned, late in the filmmaking process, to suit a particular project. Instead Nichols began with familiar songs, often letting them play at length to drive whole sequences. And Simon and Garfunkel’s soft guitars and underlying rock beat made this feel like a young person’s score. The soundtrack album quickly became a top-seller, and the start of a lucrative new source of entertainment revenue.

Whether or not "The Sound of Silence" was meant to reflect the Kennedy assassination, its enigmatic lyrics (about subway walls, neon gods, silent prophets, and people talking without speaking) have burrowed themselves into our nation’s collective consciousness. These words are first heard at the very beginning of The Graduate, as Benjamin Braddock -- his face a blank -- is transported through Los Angeles International Airport via moving sidewalk, then lifts his suitcase off a conveyor belt before exiting through an automatic door to greet his post-graduate future. Early fans of The Graduate easily found in the song an expression of the modern world’s sterility, and of the fatal communication gap between parents and their coming-of-age offspring. In late years, we could see in “The Sound of Silence” an indictment of a society that sent young men off to meaningless wars in faraway lands.

The program for New York’s tenth-anniversary Ground Zero commemoration indicated that Simon would sing a more inspirational song, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” It was not to be. Perhaps Simon felt that, in the absence of the Twin Towers and the thousands who had died there, the eerie stillness of “The Sound of Silence” was more fitting. Perhaps, on this deeply-felt occasion, he was choosing the lyric that emphasized questions, not answers. In any case, I’m certain this haunting song fit the place where it was sung, reverberating in the well of silence.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: High School Musical with a Difference

With Labor Day now a memory, school’s back in session across the U.S.A. Which makes this a good time to salute Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, the 1979 high school musical that refuses to die. Producer Roger Corman and director Allan Arkush both love to talk about how Roger’s demand for a movie cashing in on the disco craze was vetoed by Allan, because “you can’t blow up a high school to disco music.”

But I know better. Because I’ve just had a long chat with Joseph McBride, the veteran journalist and film historian who was Rock ‘n’ Roll High School's original screenwriter. Joe's a bit frustrated that few give him credit for his thoroughly outrageous concept. But Rock ‘n’ Roll High School—the movie about the Ramones and their #1 fan Riff Randell—stands as a cinematic landmark of sorts, because (as Danny Peary put it in his 1981 book Cult Movies) “there is no other commercial American film in which an American institution is destroyed and no one is punished for the deed.”

According to Joe, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School began with Allan Arkush and director-crony Joe Dante dictating a script into a tape recorder. This was standard New World Pictures procedure for that era, a way of skirting Writers Guild rules by coming up with a crude first draft, so that a guild writer would need to be paid for a rewrite only. But though Joe and Allan’s draft contained a rock music element, it was hardly a true screenplay, just sixty pages of high school hijinks without a plot. Joe McBride, guild-certified author of a previous rock ‘n’ roll script in which Roger had briefly shown interest, was then hired to flesh out the story. He remembered that in 1927 his father had led a student strike to protest the firing of a beloved teacher. That strike got national attention, because it was the first time high schoolers took a public stand against campus administrators. Having survived a Catholic school education, Joe found it easy to invent a repressive principal who would incite a student protest. Still, his story seemed a bit tame for the era, until he combined it with the notorious 1970 episode at the University of Wisconsin when Sterling Hall was bombed by students protesting the Vietnam War. Also not far from his mind was the anarchic French film Zero for Conduct, as well as the bloody student revolts that ended Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . .

The ending of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is not tragic, like the Wisconsin bombing that killed a grad student working late in a physics lab. And it is not angry and nasty, in the mode of If. . . Instead, says McBride, “It’s a parody of the old Fifties films. We did that on purpose. Like Rock Around the Clock, and those kind of things.” The sheer exuberance of its music numbers lifts Rock ‘n’ Roll High School into another realm. But that exuberance came at a price: Roger had demanded that the musical, with its 45 songs, be shot in a mere 23 days. At around day 20, Allan was carted off in an ambulance, and Joe heard he’d had a major heart attack. Happily, Arkush (barely 30 at the time) has long since recovered, and gone on to a busy career in television. He continues to be a passionate fan of pop music, and his work on The Temptations earned him an Emmy award. Roger Corman, meanwhile, continues to come up with impossible shooting schedules, for which young directors give their all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chicago: My Kind of Town

Citizen Kane is one of my favorite movies. So I well remember a pivotal moment when theatre critic Jed Leland – boggled by having to review the inept stage performance of his boss’s wife – announces his plan to exile himself from Manhattan and go work for a Chicago paper. To which Kane, indelibly played by Orson Welles, warns, “You're not going to like it in Chicago. The wind comes howling in from the lake. And there's practically no opera season at all. And the Lord only knows whether they've ever heard of Lobster Newburg.” To a consummate New Yorker like Charles Foster Kane, the Second City is no better than a hick town with particularly bad weather.

I know better. I’m just back from Chicago, a place of gorgeous weather (yes, I got lucky), great food, remarkable architecture, and civic pride that won’t quit. Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, and I saw brilliant examples, both old and new. Public spaces like 2004’s Millennium Park, with its fanciful Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain, bring out exuberant crowds who seem to be celebrating their city ‘round the clock. I came away feeling that in Chicago architects and designers (like long-time area resident Frank Lloyd Wright) are heroes.

Funny thing: no one in Chicago seemed to be talking about gangsters. And that’s the aspect of Chicago life that Hollywood likes best. Movies featuring crime bosses modeled on Chicago’s Al Capone have been around since Little Caesar in 1931. Capone himself has been played by many big-name actors, especially those of the chew-the-scenery persuasion, like Rod Steiger (1959’s Al Capone) and Robert De Niro (1987’s The Untouchables). Even Some Like It Hot kicks off with a version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: the musicians played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis need to take up cross-dressing because they’ve seen too much and the mob is on their trail.

Some critics (though not me) consider The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre one of Roger Corman’s very best films. Certainly it was one of his biggest, made for Fox in 1967, and featuring a cast that included Jason Robards and rising star George Segal. It was written by Howard Browne, a former Chicago newspaperman. That film was before my time, but I was assistant story editor on the Corman-produced Capone (1975), made from Browne’s final screenplay. I’ll never forget Howard’s passion for Chicago and its history. Theatrical to the core, he announced that “I loved the city, the way you love a woman.” (By the way, in the showpiece scene in which cops raid a speakeasy, you might possibly spot me as a flapper swilling bootleg gin. Thanks again to director Steve Carver for saving me a place at the crap table!) I also worked on Concorde’s 1995 Dillinger and Capone, starring Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham. It’s based on Michael Druxman’s imaginative script, which posits that John Dillinger -- far from being gunned down in front of Chicago’s Biograph Theater -- secretly teamed up with Al Capone to plan one last job.

Needless to say, none of the Corman films was shot on location. But you can glimpse the real Chicago in movies as different as Backdraft (Ron Howard’s tribute to the close-knit fraternity of Chicago firefighters) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The latter, sometimes described as John Hughes’ love letter to the city, highlights a puckish suburban kid who’s hankering for a Downtown Chicago adventure. On a sun-kissed day, who wouldn’t play hooky to frolic in a city like this one?

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Help, Hollywood-Style

As a reward for surviving the dentist, I took myself to Starbucks for a latte. (Yes, I’m one of those.) The line seemed short, but the attractive young woman ahead of me -- casually dressed, but carefully made up -- was ordering a long list of specialty items. She was making extra certain that one drink had four shots of espresso, and another contained three pumps of vanilla. Given the location of this Beverly Hills Starbucks, a stone’s throw from some major talent agencies, I was certain she was a show biz intern doing what interns do: making life cushier for their ever-demanding bosses.

Recent college grads with Hollywood aspirations know that interning is a good way to get a foot in the door. The contacts they make at an agency or production company can be invaluable to their future careers. Sometimes they get paid a pittance for all that hustle, but penny-pinching show-biz vets of the Roger Corman variety are well aware that an eager young man or woman will gladly work for free. It was the very clever Matt Leipzig who first approached Roger in the 1980s, offering to serve as his first unpaid assistant. This was an offer that Roger couldn’t refuse. Matt’s brains and determination impressed Roger, who soon promoted him to head of production. Ultimately Matt moved on, putting his Concorde-New Horizons experience to work first as a film exec and then as a literary agent with close Hollywood ties. Another intern, Minard Hamilton, quickly became Roger’s sales manager, before accepting a major position with ESPN. (He’s now CEO of a videogame company, Six Degrees Games.)

Today Roger happily fills his staff with unpaid and barely-paid assistants. Making up in zeal for what they lack in filmmaking experience, such newbies pounce upon every opportunity to show their stuff. And they’re not above vying with one another to make the best impression. A producer-type I know, closely involved with the shooting of a recent Corman film, griped to me that new college grads were giving screening notes that resulted in big new demands on his budget. I’m sure they just wanted to sound smart, without thinking through the ramifications of their off-the-cuff critiques.

Many Hollywood bosses (Roger and Julie Corman included) take a strong personal interest in their underlings. Assistants—who may be paying their bosses’ bills, phoning their doctors, buying their pantyhose, and wrangling their children—sometimes find themselves treated as almost a member of the family. Black Swan producer Mike Medavoy, for one, puts the usual heavy demands on his staff, but also takes pride in helping bright young people enter the business. It’s the line between the personal and professional that sometimes gets tricky.

There was a time, soon after I left Concorde-New Horizons, that another Corman alumnus alerted me to the possibility of an assistantship with an independent producer. This Hollywood player had some major credits in his past, but was then between projects. For the time being, he was working out of his spacious Brentwood home. My years of experience and the fact that I was married with children intrigued him. But when he launched into a diatribe about how a previous hire had offended his sensibilities by parking her lunchtime yogurt carton in his home refrigerator, I began to sense that working as a personal assistant has its perils. As Labor Day approaches, I hail those bright young people who try so hard to please, but are always just one yogurt cup -- or quadruple-shot latte -- away from disaster.