Friday, March 3, 2017

Bill Paxton and Below-the-Line Hollywood

We’re all stunned by the passing of Hollywood good-guy Bill Paxton at the early age of 61. I remember him particularly from Apollo 13, where he played astronaut Fred Haise, and of course from TV’s Big Love. But his obits remind us that he started out in the business working for (who else?) Roger Corman. Like so many in Hollywood, Paxton was an alumnus of the unofficial Roger Corman School of Low-Budget Filmmaking.

Paxton’s first film assignment, back in 1974, was in the art department for Corman’s Big Bad Mama, a Depression Era romp starring Angie Dickinson at her sexiest and most deadly. Frankly, I don’t remember him. As the production secretary on that film, I was responsible for cast and crew getting paid. But most of my efforts were directed at the department heads, like art director Peter Jamison. I wouldn’t have had much to do with a lowly set dresser, which was Paxton’s credit on this film.

Those outside the film industry may not be quite aware of how many people it takes to make a movie. They see (if they bother to stick around) the long strings of names listed in a film’s end-credits, but they don’t understand the implications of the jobs we call “below the line.” A film crew is in fact something like an army going into battle. There are numerous departments, hierarchically arranged (e.g. the cinematographer holds sway over the camera and lighting crews), and department heads are largely responsible for hiring and overseeing those who work in subordinate positions. Even in the famously down-and-dirty Corman world, a certain discipline is imposed by this arrangement. If Paxton had not moved into acting with a tiny role in Corman’s 1975 Crazy Mama (a Cloris Leachman flick not to be confused with Big Bad Mama), he might have climbed up the chain of command into crew positions of greater responsibility. As it was, he continued to accrue art department credits until 1987, though a relationship with fellow Corman alum James Cameron moved him into big-time acting roles by way of  1984’s The Terminator and 1986’s Aliens (“Game over, man!”).

 Working production on Big Bad Mama, I discovered the life of a crew member. I’ll never forget an eager-beaver PA (production assistant) who was clearly raring to make his mark in the movie game. No youngster, he was rapidly going grey, and had a wife and kids whom he’d moved to L.A. in pursuit of his filmmaking dream. I wondered at his choice of vocation. If, in his forties, he was willing to take the lowliest of positions on a non-union Roger Corman crew, I didn’t see how his family would survive. Fortunately, I think he wised up. The IMDB lists his credits only on two Corman films. I’m hoping he went back where he came from and fulfilled his career goals some other way. 

Also on Big Bad Mama I met Teri Schwartz, a young woman both efficient and good-humored. As the film’s second assistant director, she was a steady, calming presence. For those who don’t know, an assistant director is never going to make it into the directorial ranks. Rather, the job is largely administrative, involving taking care of actors’ paperwork. The A.D. also ushers actors and extras to the set at the right moment and makes sure to avoid snafus. Teri was so good at this that she became a producer on hit films like Sister Act. And now she’s the much-respected dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Some below-the-line folks make it to the top with a vengeance.

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