March 21-27, 1983

Los Angeles, March 1983

Monday, March 21: DAY ONE

Not a good day, I have to confess.  So, I can deal with the would-be producer on the bus from the airport, a man getting old fumbling around for a last chance to make something of himself.  But I was simply not ready for my first foray into corporate-land.  Down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass into the world of a third-rate Kafka.

I got back from breakfast this morning to find the little red light flashing on my phone.  A message.  Anatol had arrived.  He’s a friendly guy in his late thirties – grey-streaked beard and hair.  He drove all night from north of San Francisco in the jeep we’ll use to get down to Mexico.

We called Armstrong’s office and went over there about ten-thirty.  Met Ruth.  Briefly saw Armstrong.  Were shown a bunch of electronic press kits – a grueling experience.  Shit, in a word.  Bland, unimaginative.  This is what we’re supposed to do?

We were sent to lunch after twelve – still no meeting.  Burgers in the Universal cafeteria.  Anatol wanted to go to the bank to make a payment due on his jeep.  Only to find there were no funds – six-hundred dollars gone since he checked in at six-fifteen.  Funny business.  We’re brought down here to do a job and they take money from us.  So we get fired up, ready to fume when we meet with Armstrong at two-thirty.

So we arrive, and who’s there?  Paul Sammon, a writer (did CFQ’s Conan issues, among others).  He’s in on the meeting.  Now, I can’t recreate that meeting.  It was a strange affair, an amorphous thing which left us with less of an idea than when we went in.  What exactly did Armstrong have in mind?  This press kit stuff?  A documentary?  Sammon talks of a TV thing using material from old epics (The Ten Commandments?!?) culminating in Dune.  And – get this: Charlton Heston narrating (or at least introducing) it – “the voice of God,” he said.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or barf.  On the whole, I kept quiet, letting it flow over me.  What to say when he asks, “You haven’t done anything like this before, have you?”  I said no.  Okay, I was put on the defensive as soon as I met Sammon: is he getting control?  He’s sucking up to Armstrong, throwing out these stupid PR ideas.  Because he was there I couldn’t bring up my salary, so I still don’t know how much I’m to be paid.  It didn’t seem all that important considering we were being told they want shit.

We managed to straighten out the hotel situation, though.  And, although we spent the rest of the afternoon kicking all this idiocy back and forth, getting angry, venting our frustration, we went for drinks and supper (it all goes on the bill now) and began to relax.  And then Anatol hit on a possibility which may explain why Armstrong was so vague, so annoying.  Tomorrow we’re to go over to the Dune people here; we’re to be attached to them for the duration, says Armstrong, until Universal buys it back.  But maybe the truth is, we’ve simply been taken out of his hands and he’s struggling to maintain the appearance of control.

After a couple of margaritas and a bottle of wine, we felt much better.  If we’re going to be dealing with the Dune people rather than the Universal PR unit, we’ll be freer – because we’ll be closer to David, who understands what we want and appreciates that we want to do right by him.  So maybe, once we’re away from this place it’ll go smoothly (more smoothly).  Because, frankly, this guy Armstrong seems to be an insecure idiot, wanting to keep us down so that we won’t present a threat.  Tomorrow may tell….

One thing I don’t like: we’ve been instructed to enter Mexico as tourists.  Visas, Armstrong says, will be fixed up by the company in Mexico City.  I really don’t want any unnecessary complications.

Frankly, getting down here hasn’t allayed any of my fears.  It’s heightened them.

Tuesday, March 22: DAY TWO

More corporate bullshitting this morning.  But at least I know how much I’m being paid – twenty-five thousand.  Tomorrow, we’ll bring up the matter of points again; today Armstrong just waved his hands about and said, “We’ll take care of you, don’t worry.”  Already, Anatol and I know that we have to take care of ourselves.

I spent some time in the office of Armstrong’s boss.  He was suddenly invited to lunch with Ed Schreyer, who’s apparently in town.  Since I’m Canadian and I was there, he just wanted to brush up on what he knew about the country.  I didn’t get to say much, but I got a view of executive behaviour – the abrupt mood shifts, friendly calls, hostile calls, jokes, threats, all flowing fast and furious.

High point of the morning: we got copies of David’s Dune script.  Looks very good.

A business lunch with Armstrong and two guys from Panasonic.  More surrealistic behaviour; the gossip, the jollity, the plastic camaraderie.  Anatol would bring up matters; the Panasonic guys would respond – but obviously Armstrong doesn’t know the technical end and he would redirect the conversation, most pointedly when Anatol again brought up the idea of us having a basic editing capability down there.

But after this long tedious business, Armstrong left us and we followed these two back to their office to meet the camera and to talk.  The machine turns out to be very good – Anatol found himself instantly comfortable with it.  After a short test, we retired and drew up a list of basic requirements – including the editing capability (which, it seems, will in the long run save Armstrong money because it’ll cut down on the amount of time his people will have to fuck around up here; we’ll be shooting a lot of tape, a vast amount of material which it would take someone unfamiliar with it ages to wade through; they’re talking three hundred hours).  The package would be about twenty-five thousand to buy outright – they’re working out a rental figure.  Tomorrow we have to sell it to Armstrong, persuade him it’s all necessary (which it is).

Then on Thursday, we’ll drive out.

We still haven’t met the Dune people here yet, though.

This evening we again went for drinks in the bar, had a leisurely supper.  Anatol talked of some of his experiences – born in Russia with a Polish father, years of statelessness in France and elsewhere, time spent at the AFI (not very happy), disappointing experiences trying to get going in film, people who messed him around (like Roman Polanski), marriage to a White Russian countess in Paris, the bizarre circles of the exiled aristocracy there.

After that we got on to future plans: our first feature.  We have to start thinking about it now, come up with some property, so that we can attack it fresh from this project.

It seems crazy, but I suddenly seem to be plugged into this business – all because I was fascinated by Eraserhead years ago.

Wednesday, March 23: DAY THREE

Much waiting around today.  This morning, a brief meeting with Armstrong, in which he is informed as to the cost of the support package we worked out yesterday.  He looks a little queasy, so we work to assure him it’s all necessary.

Today he seemed a bit better – more positive, less slippery, to the point where he made remarks about what lies beyond.  Could Anatol and I be in line for another six months or so, working on post-production here in L.A.?  And what’s this about visiting Frank Herbert’s ecologically balanced ranch in Washington state? and – gulp! – effects people in London?

This afternoon, we were each given a fifteen hundred dollar cheque for traveling expenses (here I get for pocket money more than I’ll be paid for my article in CFQ …).  And we visited the Dune office on the lot – another breath of fresh air.  Hester, a friendly dark-haired young woman, was very straightforward and businesslike.  She took down the details – was going to contact Mexico City to clear everything, and their agent in El Paso who will take care of customs, insurance, etc. (we’ll hear back on that tomorrow)(so we won’t be taking the coast route south after all).

Los Angeles, March 1983

But then this evening it all got sour again.  We had a meeting with the people at Westgate who put together the electronic press kits which Armstrong is so enamoured of.  Theirs will be the project editing facility; they obviously have a deal with Armstrong that covers these matters.  Too bad.  Not only is their material technically poor (the shooting is sloppy, the sound a mess); their attitude – like Armstrong’s – is that of TV ad-men.  It’s all product; everything becomes bland and homogenized.  They like lots of zooms in and out; they love talking heads (as Anatol terms static on-camera interviews).  And they sat there instructing us on how to shoot things while showing us this awful shit.  Interviews were done badly – they’d interrupt because the camera wasn’t properly set; they’d record where ambient noise was loud enough to drown voices; they destroyed spontaneity with their clumsiness.  If I worked like that, I’d become too embarrassed to deal with anyone.

But what’s worse is that subject matter means nothing to them.  The guy thought David might be a problem because he’d heard he was “very low key” – now Hal Needham is great because he’s very active and loud … Lynch and Dune mean nothing to them – all they want are their zooms and pans (fill the vacuum with an illusion of action) and their pat interviews.

So – we’ll go and shoot the way we want to shoot.  They’ll get the material and make their PR stuff.  We hope that we’ll be able to put together our film too.  Anatol is already talking of keeping back the material we really like, the special stuff.  Certainly I intend to keep my audio cassettes (we can re-record bits of them, but I’ll keep the originals).  And very early we’ll sit down with David to talk out this situation.  Because Armstrong today said he’ll be showing our “rushes” to virtually every tom, dick and harry – home movies for the office staff and friends.  Obviously David won’t want the stuff tossed around that carelessly.  At least Anatol managed to convey that the original tape shouldn’t be screened – it looked as if Armstrong really didn’t know the difference.

This may be a battle all the way.  But perhaps it’ll smooth out once we get to Mexico.  We certainly got the impression that these guys envy our position.  We’re in a privileged position, being close to David, and we’re using technology they’re never even seen.  Maybe they want to hold us down – we’re just a means to their end, a tool they have to use to placate David as they seek their bland video package.  We want as little to do with them as possible.

Anatol and I are getting along together very well.  We have similar views of David and this project, we have similar responses to the shit around here.  David had a great idea, Anatol says, bringing us together.  Anatol needs someone who writes to accompany his visual work; and I need someone to help shape what I write.  Talking about things, I’ve come to feel much better, more confident about all this because of Anatol’s openly expressed confidence in me.  I feel very comfortable with him (I was able to explode in disgust this evening when we left Westgate and explain exactly what was wrong with what  we were shown and how I felt about the apparent position we hold in relation to those guys – at least in their minds).  Whatever else might go wrong, I think at least Anatol and I will develop a good relationship.

Halfway through the script.  A bit too heavy on explanatory dialogue perhaps (inevitably) – but the action is relentless and the imagery incredible.  If he can get it on the screen, it’ll be – well, a uniquely Lynchian epic – unlike anything else.

Thursday, March 24: DAY FOUR

(Hastily scribbled the next morning.)

Another sour day, a feeling of wasted time.  We didn’t get out of L.A.

I had some problems cashing the fifteen-hundred dollar cheque – they’re very touchy about ID here.  Finally got it sorted out and bought fifteen-hundred dollars worth of travelers’ cheques.

We went over to Shoreline, the Panasonic people, late in the morning to cover a couple of details.  They’d spoken to Armstrong, but things were still vague (of course).  A few more items were added to the package and the head of purchasing for Universal was coming down to see what he was supposed to be getting.  First of all: he didn’t know who Anatol and I were – this was the first he knew of the project (!).  Second: just before he arrived something went wrong with Shoreline’s playback system, so the equipment he was to see wasn’t even working when he got there.  That did little for our confidence – and as for the guy at Panasonic, Paul Carey, he was almost in tears.

Maybe we’ll have to end up with a 16mm system after all (Anatol hopes).

We had a big lunch with some friends of Anatol’s – charging it to the studio of course.

Anatol with his new shades

In the afternoon we went shopping.  I bought a flight jacket, but couldn’t find desert boots.  A couple of pairs of jeans.  In the evening we cruised Hollywood in search of something to play my tapes on.  Finally, down in Westwood, Anatol found the Porsche Carrerra sunglasses he was looking for – but the store would take only its own credit card.  So I paid the hundred-and-thirty for them.  Then we found a big warehouse store, Federated, which was loaded with junky equipment.  We almost gave up.  Until we found an incredible little JVC stereo with mini-components – complete with short-wave radio, equalizer, and a noise reduction system going beyond Dolby.  And it was only two-hundred-fifty dollars!  So we each bought one.

But when Anatol went to pay with his credit cards, he discovered he was being fucked from all sides.  His MasterCard hadn’t been cleared of the six-hundred dollar hold put on it by the hotel on Monday.  And his Visa hadn’t been cleared by the bank, even though he paid all his bills yesterday with the expense cheque – apparently it’s legal here for the bank to “float” a cheque, that is, not to put the transaction through for several days so that it holds onto the money a while longer and collects more interest.  Apparently it’s like that all over the States.  So Anatol’s credit was fucked – and I paid for his stereo.

When we finally got back here – having driven through downtown L.A. (unbelievable), he complained at the desk and was told it usually takes seven work days to clear the hold on a card – but they’d try to fix it Friday morning.

On the bright side, the little JVC system gives excellent sound.  Only hope we don’t lose them getting into Mexico (or during the stay).

As it is, it looks as if we may not get our equipment down there for another week or two.  No wonder movie-making is so expensive – the inefficiency is like a drain that they pour money into.

Friday, March 25: DAYFIVE

As Eric Burdon sang: We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do….

We didn’t get out of the city.  Hester didn’t call back from the Dune office, so it hasn’t been clarified as to how we are supposed to travel down.  Both Anatol and I have developed a serious aversion to being “reverse wetbacks”, going down as tourists and working illegally for six months.  Anatol has quickly lost faith in the equipment.  Paul Carey at Shoreline turned out to be like everyone else we’ve met here: before, it was all friendly and confident, call him anytime if there was a problem … since Thursday morning he’s changed his tune; since we witnessed the equipment failure, he’s “just a salesman” and we’ll have to find a technician at Universal to have on standby.  It was all bullshit – he doesn’t really know anything about the system he’s selling us.

On top of this, we still don’t know where our money is or how we’re to get access to it.

So we’re stuck here for the weekend.  We’ll descend on Armstrong on Monday and demand clarification of the situation – and that we sign some kind of agreement right away instead of continuing this “don’t worry, we’ll take care of you” garbage.  We want some kind of commitment that shows that we’re being taken care of.

We even tried to call David, though we really don’t want to trouble him – but of course he’s not just sitting around in the office down there.

Anatol hopes we’ll be able to get a 16mm system after all since the video equipment may be unreliable.  But maybe this whole thing isn’t going to work out at all.

We fled the hotel and drove to the beach, to see what’s left of the storm-ravaged Santa Monica pier.  Anatol lived there when he first came here; talked about those days of hippies and cockroaches and the AFI.

We ate later at a place called La Figaro, a former bohemian hangout.  Pleasant atmosphere, quite good food.  We met a pleasant, friendly actress-waiter named Jill (Anatol strikes up conversations with any and every woman he meets, asking them to come down to Mexico – this one took it with very good humour).

Los Angeles, March 1983

We wandered around Westwood, near UCLA, and went to see Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero – a truly magical film made in Scotland (now I really regret not having seen his Gregory’s Girl last week).  So full of inventive detail, warm humour, and love for the people in it, that watching it was like being cleansed of the noxious atmosphere we’re caught in here.  Film as true poetry, achingly beautiful.

Afterwards we returned to La Figaro and were joined for a while by Jill, chatting about what we’ve all done and are doing or planning to do.  She seemed charming and natural – and since we’ll probably never meet again I can hold that pleasant image and think that perhaps not everyone here is as phony as Armstrong or Carey or those guys at Westgate.

Bought some tapes: the new Pink Floyd (a rehash of the styles and tricks of The Wall), Roxy Music’s live EP, and Marianne Faithful’s A Child’s Adventure.

Saturday, March 26: DAY SIX

Some potentially good news at last.  Anatol spoke to Fred Elmes’ girlfriend this morning.  Fred came into L.A. yesterday, is going back to Mexico this afternoon.  So Anatol gave her the whole story – from the shaky equipment situation to the lack of any written agreement to this “tourist” business … and she’ll tell it all to Fred when she drives him to the airport – and he’ll convey it to the people down there (David himself possibly).  So perhaps by Monday somebody will start pushing from that end.

Fred called here while we were at lunch – left his number in Mexico City, so Anatol will call him tomorrow just to make sure he knows exactly what’s going on.  We might get this cleared up yet.

Sunday, March 27: DAY SEVEN

Mexico, it seems, is a filmmaker’s hell.  Reality may sour the dream terribly.

Anatol spoke to Fred for an hour this morning.  The studio is primitive; all the equipment must be imported.  The city is bathed not just in gaseous pollution, but in particulate pollution too.  There’s no air conditioning – tending the video equipment will be a major job.

The start keeps getting delayed.  The cameras are out-dated Todd-AO, because De Laurentiis owns the company.  This stuff was the hot new thing in the mid-Fifties, but it’s long since been by-passed.  The lenses are slow, so they have to have masses of light….  Worst of all, they’ve started cutting effects out of the script – “too expensive”.  With De Laurentiis’ cheap-jack mentality, David’s going to be fighting against the Battlestar Galactica style all the way.  If only they could have got Trumbull (but I guess his quality comes at a higher price).  They pump forty million or more into crap like Flash Gordon and Star Trek, but when someone like David comes along they try to tie him down….

On the more positive side (?) Fred says we’re not missing anything yet – that we should stay here to get the deal worked out properly, get the editing equipment, before we leave.  Communications are so bad that we’d never get it done once we were down there.

He’ll tell David what’s going on – so hopefully some pressure will be applied to protect us (and the film) from Armstrong’s more excessive stupidities.

I suppose it’s valuable to be getting this first-hand view of the way these people work – in such a way that Anatol and myself aren’t going to be seriously harmed personally (think how much worse if we were trying to do a feature!) – but my heart aches for David.  He should never have to put up with this ridiculous shit.

Two films today.  Both French, both good.  Tavernier’s bizarre, twisted morality tale Coup de Torchon, with a superlative performance by Philippe Noiret.  And Jean-Jacques Beineix’ Diva, a thriller so slick, so polished, so stylish, that it’s almost too much of a good thing – the technique is so awesome that you wonder if Beineix might not have exhausted all his potential on this, his first film; but it’s a glorious entertainment.

Bought Stephen King’s new novel – a big one called Christine.


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