Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Unfrosted: Sixties Silliness

Netflix’s new Unfrosted, the directorial debut of Jerry Seinfeld, is rated PG-13.  But you’d have to be a lot older than thirteen to catch all the comic references (and would-be comic references) to the era in which this TV movie is set. In fact co-writer (as well as director and star) Seinfeld was himself merely a kid in 1963 when JFK was president, NASA was prepping a moon mission, Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves, and Kellogg’s was introducing its new breakfast idea, Pop Tarts.

 I’m not quite sure why Seinfeld and his cronies decided the world needed a fictionalized version of the rivalry between Kellogg’s and Post, both of then Battle Creek, Michigan companies striving to be numero uno in the American breakfast market. But they must have felt that the rampant consumerism of the era made for a lively target. And so it does, at least for a while. In their version (which has nothing to do with actual fact), Post—led by Amy Schumer as Marjorie Merriweather Post—has stolen Kellogg’s plans for a heat-and-serve breakfast pastry, and is preparing for a huge roll-out of the new product. To head off this effort, Kellogg’s team has cornered the market in Cuban sugar, and borrowed the shape of a Univac punch card to create their own pastry. They’ve then brought in Jon Hamm and John Slattery of Mad Men fame to give their invention the proper P.R. push, making Pop Tarts fly off store shelves, unlike Post’s almost identical Country Squares.

 The film also finds room for Melissa McCarthy, Bob Gaffigan (as Edsel Kellogg III, the Seinfeld character’s boss), Dan Levy (in a brief appearance as Andy Warhol),  and Peter Dinklage (leading the milk industry’s charge against the new product). James Marsden, hamming it up as TV exercise king Jack Lalanne, heads a lively parade of the era’s commercial icons, which include Chef Boyardee and the maker of  Schwinn bikes.  And speaking of icons, none other than Hugh Grant plays Thurl Ravenscroft, an actor whose claim to fame is being the sonorous voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. Ravenscroft was an actual voice performer, much beloved by Disney animators, but in Seinfeld’s version he’s a frustrated Shakespearean actor who ends up leading a gaggle of cereal mascots--think Snap, Crackle, and Pop—in a work action against their unappreciative bosses.

 In an effort to leave no Sixties celebrities unspoofed, Unfrosted also makes room for Johnny Carson, John F. Kennedy (furnished with a Boston accent and a pair of attractive blonde twins), and Nikita Khrushchev, who’s brought into the conflict by the Post folks. (Trying to woo him, they posit the introduction of some Russian-friendly cereals like Borscht Loops and Count Vodkula.)  There’s also much would-be jocularity surrounding NASA’s early stabs at space exploration. One joke involving the death in a 1967 launchpad fire of early astronaut Gus Grissom did not go over well in my household. 

 With Jerry Seinfeld’s humor getting more political these days, it wasn’t surprising to notice a more current allusion too. At a point near the end of the film, when striking mascots are demanding that governmental officials “stop the certification” of the new product, the rhetoric is an obvious spoof of the events of January 6, 2021 (and Hugh Grant’s character appears in a Tiger-striped version of the so-called "QAnon Shaman" who wore an outlandish headdress to storm the U.S. Capitol.) Clever parody? I’m not so sure. More like a cluster of buddies at a late-night bull session, thinking up everything and anything that could make them laugh.




Thursday, May 16, 2024

No Stuntmen Were Harmed in the Making of this Movie?: “The Fall Guy”

Back during my Roger Corman years, I went on location to help with the making of an Angie Dickinson flick, 1974’s Big Bad Mama. Somewhat inspired by the success of Bonnie and Clyde, it’s about a mother/daughter Depression-era crime spree in the rural Southwest. As the story unfolds, a very game Angie gets up close and personal with both William Shatner and Tom Skerritt, and a good time is had by all.

 Though most of my days were spent at my desk, I was very much present for the stunt team’s biggest moment on that film. Set on a quaint local street in the then-sleepy town of Temecula, California, it involved a car chase that results in the dramatic flipping over of a vintage !930s-era auto. Of course we all wanted to see our stunt guy roll that car, and so New World Pictures personnel were present in force for the big moment. With a stunt such as this one, you don’t get more than one chance to do it right. And so we all held our breaths when the big moment came. Fortunately, the movie gods smiled down, and it all went beautifully. And so the successful driver unbuckled his safety gear and sauntered off to the local bar.

 I thought of that experience while watching the new and delightful Ryan Gosling/Emily Blunt film, The Fall Guy. It certainly makes the case that there’s no business like show business, and that stuntmen are a breed apart. I defy anyone to make sense of the plot of The Fall Guy. But why let a little thing like credibility stand in the way of enjoying a wild and crazy story that includes every kind of stunt you can think of, all of them taking place in and around beautiful Sydney harbor? 

 The Fall Guy, loosely based on a TV series that ran from 1981 to 1986, stars the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling as a stuntman named Colt Seavers, whose career threatens to be cut short by a serious miscue while he’s shooting a dramatic fall. Holing up to heal in solitude, he alienates his Own True Love, a would-be director named Jody, played with sass by Emily Blunt. But, while Colt is parking cars to make ends meet, he gets a mysterious summons to take part in Jody’s directorial debut, a SFX-heavy space opera called Metalstorm. His job (natch!) will be to double for star Tom Ryder, an arrogant macho-man type who likes to publicize the fact that he performs all his own stunts. (Yeah, right!) 

 Suffice it to say that there are chases, and murders, and an evil plot to pin some dastardly doings on poor Colt. And there are also loads of extras milling around in kooky outer-space costumes. The whole thing reminds me of a different Corman flick, Battle Beyond the Stars, for which Roger actually built a ramshackle studio to try making his own threadbare Star Wars clone. (Both Battle Beyond and The Fall Guy actually boast a Space Cowboy character, which I choose to think is someone’s personal Corman homage. Probably not, though director David Leitch has graduated into directing from a long Hollywood career as a stuntman.) 

 One big difference between the life of a stuntman today and in the Corman era: though we all love watching “practical” stunts that require athletic skill, not simply CGI trickery, these days it’s easy enough in post-production to paste a famous actor’s face on a stuntman’s body. So stuntmen get no respect? Well, some in the Academy are now campaigning for a stuntman category at the Oscars. 

Monday, May 13, 2024

Remembering Roger Corman (who made me an author and a screenwriting maven)

The death of filmmaker Roger Corman at age 98 means that his life and career are now being subjected to serious reappraisal. Critics and film historians are busily weighing his contributions to the industry, focusing on his production smarts, his mentoring of many of Hollywood’s finest, and his achievements as a maverick indie director. How can I add to this outpouring of affection for a man who has played such a large role in my own professional life?

 I’ve decided to start with a slightly edited version of two personal memories that kick off my first book. It’s an independent biography now called (in its 3rd edition) Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Here goes! 

 I first laid eyes on Roger Corman in 1973, when he interviewed me for a job as his assistant at New World Pictures. He’d gotten my name through the Phi Beta Kappa chapter of UCLA, where I was finishing up a doctorate in English. It was typical of Roger to seek out someone with lofty academic credentials: he loved to shore up his credibility by hiring underlings with fancy degrees and titles.

 On that first morning, I was impressed (as everyone always was) by Corman’s handsome face, deep voice, and good-humored manner. We had a serious talk about motion picture aesthetics, and he told me that one condition of my employment would be a promise to read and discuss with him Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film (1960). Of course I complied, wondering how this ponderous tome would shed light on the making of Corman’s cinematic staples: monster movies and biker flicks. I’m still wondering. He never mentioned Kracauer again.

Several jobs later, I was persuaded by Roger to become the story editor at Concorde-New Horizons, the new company he had founded in 1983. My duties included overseeing writers, consulting with young directors, and earning the occasional script credit on horror films and thrillers that needed emergency fixes. Life was hardly dull. One April afternoon in 1994, Corman called me into his office. There, dwarfed by huge paintings that had been done on the cheap by a grad student imitating Ellsworth Kelly, we had what turned out to be another pivotal conversation.

 Roger told me his fears for his company’s financial health. (This was nothing new; he had these concerns every week or two.) Then he brought up the plight of a close friend of mine. As an early Corman employee, she  had taught me a great deal when I first came on board. Later, she’d moved into more lucrative positions with more prestigious film companies. But she’d hit on hard times, and was now desperate for work. It was a nice gesture on Corman’s part to make a place for her on his staff. It was not so nice, however, to give her my job.

The upshot was that after eight years of loyal service, I was rewarded with two weeks’ notice. All the while Roger insisted that I had been an exemplary employee. He told me to write myself a glowing recommendation (“Don’t be modest,” he said), and promised to sign it.  (And did.) I later discovered that in typically shrewd Corman fashion, he’d hired my old friend on a cut-rate basis. Which meant that while lending a hand to someone in need, he was actually saving the difference between her salary and my own. So his altruism, though undoubtedly genuine, was also to his material benefit. But such is Roger Corman: truly, the buck stops with him, in more ways than one.

 Does the above imply bitterness on my part? A bit. But my book also conveys the moments when Roger could be gracious, even unexpectedly generous. Yes, he was notoriously cheap, but as he told one of my Corman colleagues who had just been handed his very first directing gig, “I get the money, you get the career.” In my case, this has meant the launch of a new life as a book author, an ongoing gig teaching screenwriting through UCLA Extension, and some great stories to share. Thanks, Roger.

The original cover and title of my first published book


Friday, May 10, 2024

Remembering the Wives: Eleanor Coppola and Samantha Davis

In Hollywood, as in the rest of life, wives sometimes get overlooked. But two recent deaths have reminded me of how complicated (though rewarding) it can be to unite in marriage with a major showbiz figure. Eleanor Neil met Francis Ford Coppola in Ireland, where he was shooting his first professional film, a Roger Corman cheapie called, Dementia 13. (She was serving as assistant art director on the project. It came about because Corman had shot The Young Racers in the Emerald Isle, and figured that cast and crew could quickly crank out one more film before they all went home. ) The Coppolas wed in 1963, produced three children, and stayed married for the rest of their lives, despite a good deal of turbulence, as he moved from the glory years of the Godfather films into more complicated territory. In 1976 Eleanor was present in the Philippines, with very young kids in tow, as Coppola shot his Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now (released in 1979). The chaos of that experience (including Martin Sheen’s nervous breakdown and a typhoon that destroyed an expensive set) was captured in her diaries, which she shaped into a pull-no-punches 1979 book, The Making of Apocalypse Now. It’s been years since I read it, but I recommend it as a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the emotional toll that’s taken when a movie crew moves to a distant land to shoot a difficult film.

 So warmly was Eleanor Coppola’s book received that she helped turn it into a documentary film, which she co-directed with Fax Bahr and my old friend George Hickenlooper. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse appeared in 1991, and quickly picked up awards, including an Emmy for "Outstanding Individual Achievement – Informational Programming – Directing.” Thereafter, Eleanor tried her hand at feature filmmaking, directing the 2016 romantic comedy, Paris Can Wait as well as 2020’s Love is Love is Love. She also published a second book, Notes on a Life, which chronicled the doings of her famous family, including the death of her first-born son Gian-Carlo at the age of 22 and her husband’s much-maligned decision to cast daughter Sofia in a key role in The Godfather, Part III. Nor did Eleanor give up documentary filmmaking, chronicling the making of Sofia’s 2006 feature, Marie Antoinette. 

 Eleanor passed away on April 12 of this year, at the age of 87 in Rutherford, California, seat of the family’s well-known winery There’s little question that hers was a remarkably productive life.

 Far less well-known was Samantha Davis, who died on March 24 at the age of 53. She was the longtime wife of Warwick Davis, who starred in George Lucas and Ron  Howard’s Willow.. In this 1988 fantasy film, the still-teenaged Davis (all of three foot six inches tall) played a hero who saves a kingdom from evil usurpers. Part of the drama takes place in the village of the Nelwyns (supposedly a race of tiny people all under four feet tall). For these scenes, little people were recruited from around the globe, and they joyously bonded with one another, leading director Howard to say, “To see them interacting, performing, working hard, laughing, playing, carrying on . . . that was to me I think maybe the greatest experience in the movie.”

 On set Warwick first got to know Samantha, and they married soon thereafter. Though in Willow she was simply a villager, she did rack up several other acting credits, including a role in one of the Harry Potter films. Together they founded a charitable organization, Little People U.K.  His tributes to her memory are deeply moving.



Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Drifting through the UCLAx Film Festival

My home campus, UCLA, has recently made headlines with stories about protest encampments, pitched student-on-student battles, and arrests, all pertaining to the tangled conflicts in the Middle East. But last Saturday I attended an event that was peaceful and even joyous. For almost 30 years I’ve been an instructor through UCLA Extension, which welcomes students from all over the world who are keen to improve their skills in a variety of disciplines. Last week Extension hosted UCLAx Film Festival 2024, a gathering of up-and-coming filmmakers who’ve taken pertinent courses in its entertainment studies division or the writers’ program in which I teach. I consider this festival a well-kept secret that should be better known. I attended this year, for the very first time, because one of my screenwriting students alerted me that his short film would be among those featured.

 The festival, I’ve discovered, is eight years old. Naturally, during the pandemic, it was online only. And this year’s event was postponed from fall 2023 to spring 2024 because of the long-lasting Writers Guild strike. Still, the event I just attended was a total wow! Introductory days of festivities and panels were followed by the main event, held this year in Downtown L.A.’s fabulous Los Angeles Theatre, a French baroque-style movie palace where in 1931 Charlie Chaplin once premiered City Lights. The Downtown location, which was mercifully far from the campus disturbances of the past week, served to highlight UCLA Extension’s commitment to offering educational opportunities in L.A.’s business hub. And the swanky afterparty (free to all attendees) was a delight.

 So how were the films? These professional-quality gems, all 15 minutes or under, represented a wide variety of styles, themes, and even nationalities. (There were subtitled films shot in Spanish, French, Turkish, and Farsi)  Among the 19 entries were piquant studies of lost souls; a documentary saluting a  ninety-year-old woman who takes a very personal approach to feeding the hungry, a musical tale of a bear invading an L.A. neighborhood, and a love story involving a malfunctioning android. The five prizes awarded at the end of the day showcased the range and quality of the work on display. The audience prize went to The Dot, a whimsical story of a lonely man in an art gallery. Another honoree was Elevate, about a taut late-night encounter between a security guard and a tenant in the high-rise where she works. Andean Condor, gorgeously shot in South America, was a prize-winner too, as was the uproariously goofy The 1971 Kitchen Grand Brie, which used computer-aided animation to  bring us the world’s tastiest road race, in which racing star Armando Fettuccini finally gets his just desserts.

 I’ve saved the best for last. My former student, Christopher Hills Eaton, was the writer/director/producer of an animated film that condenses the story of a full life into 9 ½ poignant minutes. I had absolutely nothing to do with Driftwood, but I have read  enough of Chris’s past work (and learned enough about his family story) to know him as a man of sensitivity and deep emotions. Driftwood begins with a young sailor knocked into the sea in the chaos surrounding Pear Harbor. His salvation comes as he clings to a large chunk of driftwood, and the eccentrically-shaped log follows him through the rest of his life. When the lights came up, my husband asked me if I had a Kleenex I could spare. This was my first discovery that I wasn’t the only one watching the end of the film through tears.  Bravo, Chris!  

For more information about the festival and this year’s films, see https://www.uclaextension.edu/uclaxfilmfest