Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Many Successes of Haskell Wexler

 As a writer who focuses on Hollywood, I’ve been very lucky. In 2008, for over two hours, I had Haskell Wexler as a sparring partner. Wexler, the eminent cinematographer who died Sunday at age 93, was widely known to be opinionated, even cantankerous. He had a strong social consciousness, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. When I was researching Hollywood films of the late 1960s, I badly wanted to discuss with Haskell his first directorial effort, 1969’s Medium Cool. It’s about a news cameraman (played by Robert Forster) covering the violence surrounding Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention. Shot in the style of a cinéma vérité documentary, it explores one of Wexler’s favorite philosophical themes, the overlap between fact and fiction. As he sees it, “There are no facts. Just people’s fictions.”

I had plenty of questions when I showed up at Haskell’s airy Santa Monica condo. At first he was polite but rather cool, giving rambling philosophical answers with the air of someone who’s quite accustomed to being listened to. He made sure I knew that Hollywood movies, even those with an idealistic political bent, are first and foremost all about making money, which is why they take great care not to give offense. A good example from the seminal year 1967 is In the Heat of the Night, the Oscar-winner on which Haskell served as cinematographer after turning down an opportunity to shoot The Graduate. (His previous collaboration with director Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, had won him his first Oscar. He wanted to work with Nichols again, but had taken a principled stand against doing projects he didn’t like, and The Graduate fit into that category.)

My real breakthrough with Haskell came when I asked about Blow-Up, the surrealistic Antonioni film which like Medium Cool has a photographer as its protagonist. As a lover of European art films, Haskell confirmed that Blow-Up was hugely important to him. But, always skeptical about conventional American tastes, he lamented that this film had never gotten its due in Middle-America. I disagreed, noting that Blow-Up was a big box-office hit. “Yes,” said Haskell,  “but a big hit in what circles? Not in Ames, Iowa. Not in . .”  That’s when I dared to cut him off, pointing out that the film’s bold use of frontal nudity had Americans of every stripe flocking to their local cinemas. Said he, “I stand corrected.”

After I locked horns with Haskell, he seemed to truly appreciate me. I ended up being filmed with him by documentarians Joan Churchill and Alan Barker, and even got to stay for lunch. He introduced me as someone who, like him, had started with Roger Corman. Yes, the great Haskell Wexler too was a Cormanite. As a union cameraman, he couldn’t be credited on a non-union Corman film. But he shot Stakeout on Dope Street as Mark Jeffrey, creating a pseudonym from the names of his sons. He told me, “I’m fascinated by you, because you worked very closely with Roger Corman, for a long time. Roger Corman was not on the barricades. Roger Corman was a man of the system, but like an independent businessman up against the corporations. And how Roger --- you say he saw himself as an independent guy doing things that the system didn’t or wouldn’t do -- is part of  the American ideal of  the little guy pulling himself up by his bootstraps and becoming a success. Because we still accept the definition of a success, as Roger did, as making money.”

By any standard, Haskell Wexler was a success. Hail and farewell.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Roger Corman and the Gift of Giving

‘Tis the season for gift-giving. Most of us who’ve had the good fortune to work for Roger Corman realize we were given a significant gift. Not a monetary gift, to be sure. Our salaries tended to be so low that they could hardly be considered a living wage. And once Roger discovered that eager young filmmaking hopefuls would work for free, he was quick to embrace the Hollywood tradition of unpaid internships. Years ago, writer-director Howard R. Cohen told Roger that no one could live on the salaries he offered. Roger, though, had a quick response: “I get the money; you get the career.”

At this time of merry-making, it’s appropriate to pass along the story of the Christmas parties at Concorde-New Horizons. Yes, we normally had a little party, downstairs in the cramped first-floor lobby of our shabby Brentwood office building. We also each received what I must admit was a fairly generous bonus check. One year, though, profits were off. And so Roger democratically offered us a choice: the party or the bonus. Guess what we all chose? We had certainly learned from our boss that money comes first. Anyway, the party was really nothing special. Nor did it require much expenditure on Roger’s own part. Possibly Roger himself sprang for a few bottles of wine, or some paper plates. And wife Julie contributed homemade Irish soda bread. Lavish it was not! 

But let me move beyond Christmas to mention some of the gifts Roger gave to his underlings. He gave, above all, the gift of opportunity. Sometimes this was a mixed blessing. While making a film you could be sent to Peru, to be hassled by the Shining Path guerrillas. Or travel to Bulgaria or Moscow or the Philippines, where fledgling director Carl Franklin was drugged with an animal tranquilizer in a Manila nightspot, probably by someone planning to rob him. Possibly it was an attempt at something more sinister, like a kidnapping by a revolutionary group. Happily Carl survived, and no one tried asking Roger to fork over a million-dollar ransom. It’s a good bet he might have said, “A million dollars? I could do six films for that!” When we traveled on Roger’s dime, a dime was pretty much all he spent.

Still, no one can deny that Roger made things happen. At New World Pictures, Gale Anne Hurd—a  well-educated Corman assistant with no practical filmmaking background—took her first steps toward becoming a big-league producer. James Cameron wandered onto the set of Battle Beyond the Stars with an idea of how to build a front-projection camera rig for inexpensive special effects shots. Though this wasn’t a success, he started crafting spaceship models, and then segued into becoming the film’s art director, devising sets out of little more than hot glue, gaffer’s tape, spraypaint, and the styrofoam McDonald’s hamburger boxes with which he lined the interior walls of the main spacecraft. On his next film for Roger, Galaxy of Terror, Jim directed second unit. Onward and upward!

Then there was a young actress, Jeanne Bell. A petite but curvaceous former Playboy playmate, she was cast as the lead in Roger’s TNT Jackson when another actress showed up pregnant. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, she asked me how she should spell her first name. (She was born Mary Ann.)  In 1974 she rated a photo in Time  magazine for romancing Richard Burton on the set of The Klansman. Elizabeth Taylor was not amused. But such is Hollywood, where opportunities abound for moving up in the world—even if you start with Roger Corman.  

Dedicated to Errol Thomas, self-described Roger Corman fiend, who wanted more about Jeanne (or sometimes Jeannie) Bell.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars, Roger Corman-Style, Part Deux

When last we looked in on Roger Corman, he was launching his own bargain-basement version of Star Wars. George Lucas’s original space opera didn’t cost much by today’s standards: its budget is estimated at $11 million. Still, Roger’s 1980 attempt to jump on the intergalactic bandwagon, Battle Beyond the Stars, cost less than half as much—and it showed. Special effects were something new in Cormanland, and the results were not always convincing. But although Battle Beyond the Stars lacked the polish of a big studio production, it launched the careers of a surprising number of people who became Hollywood stalwarts.

The screenwriter of Battle Beyond the Stars, John Sayles, was not brand-new to the wonderful world of Corman. A successful writer of short fiction, he had been discovered in the pages of Esquire by my good friend Frances Doel, when Roger was looking for someone who could be converted into a low-cost screenwriter. Sayles’ first Corman flick was Piranha, Roger’s 1978 attempt to ride on the coattails (or perhaps the fishtails) of Jaws. He also wrote a New World gangster opus, The Lady in Red, and then put his earnings—as well as his growing understanding of cinema—to work in a small film of his own, Return of the Secaucus Seven. Sayles was the man responsible for finding a way to set The Magnificent Seven in space, on a Roger Corman budget. He would go on to become a well-paid Hollywood script doctor, as well as an indie filmmaking legend.

The late James Horner (whom we sadly lost this year in an airplane crash) was not new to Corman’s New World Pictures either. He had composed the score for The Lady in Red, as well as for a particularly schlocky Corman fish-tale, Humanoids from the Deep. Horner’s work on Battle Beyond the Stars so impressed Roger that he gave it his highest accolade: over the next thirty years, Cormanites continually borrowed from it to score other Corman movies. But Horner became much better known for Titanic.

For two other Corman protégés, Battle Beyond the Stars was truly life-changing. Gale Anne Hurd, who had been one of Roger’s ace office assistants but wanted to move into production, served as assistant production manager on the film. She found working in Roger’s ramshackle Venice studio unforgettable. As she told me, “Half the time it would be raining and the roof leaked, and there’d be four inches of water on the ground, and people were using power tools while standing in the water. Thank God OSHA never came by, and thank God nobody died.”

With work going on nearly ‘round the clock, death sometimes seemed a distinct possibility. One day Hurd was going over costs and schedules with James Cameron, the film’s new art director, when they heard a piercing scream. It seems a crew member kneeling on the floor had stuck a matte knife in his pocket, its blade protruding. A second man had tried to step over him, but the unseen blade caught his leg, severing his femoral artery. Blood spurted dramatically; he was convinced he was going to die. Hurd told me, “Jim had the presence of mind to take his shirt off, make a tourniquet, tie it, and we both drove him to the hospital.” Within hours, the wounded man was back on the set. Cameron’s heroics obviously made an impression on Hurd. They eventually married, and collaborated on such films as The Terminator, which elevated them both into Hollywood royalty.

But who directed Battle Beyond the Stars? Well, that’s another story.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Roger Corman: When The Force Was With Him

No, I don’t have any up-close-and-personal stories about the making of the original Star Wars. But I can disclose how George Lucas’s 1977 space opera helped change the way Roger Corman did business. My former boss was always a master at jumping on bandwagons. When Jaws made oceans of money in 1975, Roger commissioned a film about an even more lethal (though much smaller) fish, Piranha. And the success of Star Wars convinced him that he too needed to produce an intergalactic thriller.

When Corman founded New World Pictures in 1970, he had no studio of his own. Most of his films, like Big Bad Mama and Death Race 2000, were shot on practical locations, giving them a rough vigor prized by many fans. When we shot Candy Stripe Nurses, our hospital scenes took place at a local home for wayward girls that had recently been shut down. But once Roger decided to make his own low-budget Star Wars, he knew he needed interior space in which to create elaborate settings and shoot special effects. The result was the purchase of a property near Venice Beach. It had been the site of a now-defunct lumber yard. A ruling by the California Coastal Commission, a band of ageing hippies terrified of gentrification, forbade Corman from modernizing the exterior of the facility in any way. So the Hammond Lumber sign remained in place (Roger balked at the cost of its removal), and the studio continued to look like a decrepit DIY headquarter. Occasionally an innocent would wander through its gates in search of a two-by-four The late writer-director Howard R. Cohen once told me that he and Roger were standing outside the main soundstage when a would-be carpenter inquired about purchasing some wood. They politely explained that this was now a movie studio, and he went on his way. Afterwards, though, Roger turned to Howard, gestured to the clutter all around them, and said, “You know, I could have made some money off him.”

The studio lot, on Venice’s Main Street, was 50,000 square feet, or about half a city block. It boasted three rather makeshift soundstages, one of them housed in a tin shed. There was also a ramshackle wooden post-production building that had been sinking steadily for years, and was regarded with suspicion by the fire marshals. Challenges abounded. The shooting stages were never properly soundproofed, and because the site was located directly in the flight path for Los Angeles International Airport, production had to grind to a halt when a plane flew overhead. Ambulances and motorcycles, both frequent in that neighborhood, also pierced the silence that filmmaking demands.

Corman’s answer to Star Wars, 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, was made as a co-production with Orion Pictures. Roger claimed to have invested $2 million out of a total $5 million budget, although he’s notoriously prone to exaggerating his own expenditures. In any case, the film raked in $11 million—not exactly Star Wars numbers, but an impressive total for a Corman flick. The plot hinges on the notion of transporting The Magnificent Seven to outer space. In the Corman film, a band of scruffy space jockeys is recruited by a young farmer to save his peaceful planet from enemy invaders. The Magnificent Seven, featuring a clutch of American frontier roughnecks who ride into Mexico on a rescue mission, itself borrows directly from Akira Kurosawa’s great Japanese jidaigeki epic, The Seven Samurai. In moviemaking as in Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

It’s so much fun talking about Battle Beyond the Stars that you can expect a continuation next week. 

A gentle reminder: the updated, unexpurgated 3rd edition of my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers is newly available as an audiobook, ideal for holiday listening.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Introducing Dorothy Ponedel: She’s Why the Stars Had Faces Back Then

Makeup by Dorothy Ponedel

In this season of family gatherings and warm family memories, Meredith Ponedel thinks back to her Aunt Dorothy. Meredith had lived with her father’s sister since her mother died when she was only three. The woman in whose Beverly Hills home she grew up had white hair and needed a walker, the result of the MS that struck her when she turned 50. There was little question in young Meredith’s mind that Aunt Dot was an old lady of no particular consequence. Still, there were those glamorous photographs that five-year-old Meredith had unearthed in the attic. When she began asking questions about her aunt’s past, an amazing story emerged.

Dorothy Ponedel, it seemed, had been a valued member of the Hollywood film community.

Born in 1898 to a Chicago cigar-maker and his wife, Dot Ponedel was faced early on with the need to help support her many relatives. In her teens she made the trek to Southern California with her mother, then sent for brothers and cousins, finding work for everyone within the fledgling studio system. She herself began as a dancer, doubling for Mabel Normand and other stars of the silent era. She played hookers and a hula girl, as well as what she liked to call “the First Tonto.” (In films like 1925's Galloping Vengeance she wore a wig and dark makeup to play an androgynous Indian guide.) In that wild and woolly era, she was fortunate to be feisty and outspoken. She staved off the advances of many a director, and (when asked to pose nude) retorted, “I want all my interesting points draped, or no go.”

Soon Dot discovered she had a special talent for movie makeup. By studying the light and shadows in the paintings of great artists, she learned to highlight the best features of Hollywood’s leading ladies. The penciled-in eyebrow look that dominated the 1930s was largely her doing. Unfortunately, the formerly all-male union of Hollywood makeup artists kept trying to oust her from its ranks. When she was under contract at Paramount, both Marlene Dietrich and Mae West refused to come to work unless she was permitted to remain a union member.

Always sociable, Dot entertained many glamorous stars in her home. Joan Blondell often visited, as did her favorite Hollywood pal, Judy Garland, with whom she shared a raucous sense of humor. Niece Meredith enjoyed these visits, though not the girly gifts the ladies sometimes brought her, like frilly underwear. Nor did Meredith relish lunching on Garland’s homemade Shepherd’s Pie. But her aunt made clear that, when celebrities came to call, “she didn’t want me to know them as movie stars. She wanted me to know them as people.”

As Dot Ponedel grew older, her illness made it difficult for her to work. Still, she liked having company. When Meredith was a student at nearby Beverly Hills High, Aunt Dot would sometimes summon her to come home in the middle of the day by staging a “crisis.” Meredith will never forget the day in junior high she was given the alarming news that her aunt had fallen from her wheelchair. She was driven home by the school nurse, who helped Dot back into her chair, but was shocked by the extent of the blood and bruises that covered her face and body. After the nurse departed, Meredith learned the truth: her aunt’s ugly wounds were nothing but makeup. She just wanted to have her niece around for the afternoon.  

Dorothy Ponedel died in 1979, but has not been forgotten, As Angela Lansbury once confirmed, “She walked onto the set and everybody smiled.”  

Judy Garland, at the time she shot "In the Good Old Summertime," surrounded by her entourage. Dot, wearing a white blouse, is just above her right shoulder. The ladies are studying photos of little Liza Minnelli
An early photo of Dot Ponedel on the Paramount Studios lot  Her hair color reportedly changed from week to week.