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On Landing My First Job in the Business on Martin Scorsese's 'Mean Streets'

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by Nancy Nigrosh
November 26, 2013 6:55 PM
9 Comments
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Harvey Keitel in 'Mean Streets'

Marty stared at me and said, "This girl? She’s… tall. I mean look at her. Look at me…. Look at her." Just as directed, the entire room fell silent, looking at me. Marty threw up his hands, shaking his head. With that, he left the room. 

I felt my feet move to follow him to another part of the suite, where someone was on the phone with "the coast." Then it hit me that all these people were here from California, a place I’d never been. All around were sketches of scenes from the film they were making.  Marty sat down at a nearby desk. Instinctively I sat down and said, "I don’t have to be tall."

He grinned and said, "that’s good." He showed me some of his sketches. They were very specific. He explained how he wanted the continuity notes to be, since he’d be referring to them in the editing room in California. "So, you think you can do this?" he asked. 

"Yes, I can," I nodded. 

Then we both stood up. The disparity in our heights threw him again. "Okay," he said, sounding as if inspiration had just struck. He threw his shoulders forward as if to model a dance move or do a James Cagney imitation. 

Instinctively I followed his lead. I gently hunched in his direction. He beamed, "Yeah, that’s good."

We spent the next ten days strategically focused like our lives depended on it. Rest was something the rest of the world did. We filmed in Little Italy, one step ahead of the teamsters, since we were a non-union shoot. The local cops watched out for us. One night, Marty’s mom, Catherine, acted in a scene. A restaurant in Marty’s old neighborhood opened its doors at 3am and treated us to the meal of our lives.

Marty was patient and kind. Only once did I truly fuck up. In one scene Robert De Niro was holding a gun. In the middle of shooting he switched hands. I shouted in a panic, "The gun needs to be in your other hand!" Needless to say, I made the man angry. De Niro stepped out of the scene. He walked up to me. "Please don’t do that," he said in that soft voice that made you feel you had his complete attention and you wondered if maybe that wasn’t a good thing. Then he walked back into the scene, as though nothing had happened.

On our last day, we were shooting at night in an old cemetery, a stone’s throw from an apartment building where a party scene was being staged above us. This was an exterior pick up shot of the action inside through the window. I got to stretch out and rest. Earlier in the evening the crew had given me flowers because it was my birthday. I plopped onto the cold ground, leaned up against one of the thin granite tombstones with the flowers, my shooting script now fat with notes to Marty, my stop watch around my neck, looked up at the moon and thought, "So this is the film business. Wonder if anyone will ever see his little movie." The rest, as they say, is history.

9 Comments

  • Marcy Prager | January 9, 2014 7:35 PMReply

    Nancy,
    This account was thrilling to read! You painted the whole scenario, from beginning to end. I felt like I was there, next to you, feeling the excitement, the newness, the awkwardness, the getting more comfortable state, and the terror of DiNiro's soft, but don't ________ with me voice. I'm sorry it took so long for me to read this! Pure joy!

  • Sara Greenfield | December 9, 2013 11:12 AMReply

    My sister has worked and edited a number of scripts, and was always in the right place at the right time. She never told me what the scripts were, they were all in confidence. TO this day, I have no idea which scripts came from her office, and which ones did not... But I can see she deserves a bit more money and notoriety inside of her profession. It seems the actors and director get all of the notoriety, and the rest of the crew and script writers get zilch.... Keep at it...and you will do well....This piece truly shows the type of crap a female had to overcome back in the day, and still does, in one form or another... Tenacity rules the roost....

  • Tristine Rainer | December 8, 2013 9:04 PMReply

    Your piece is great, Nancy. You asked for others to add stories on getting their first job in the biz. Here's mine in brief. I wish I'd had your savoir-faire, and that I had bragging rights to Scorsese. But I was in L.A. and desperate for any job, even TV which I never watched.

    My decade in grad school studying for a Ph.D. in English Lit wasn’t helping me find a job in the entertainment business. I’d been looking unsuccessfully for a gig as a script reader for 8 months by the time I got an interview for a development job with T.V. producer/director Dan Curtis, known as Super Jew, perhaps because he was 6’4” and yelled at top decibel, almost non-stop. Dan was just coming off of the series Dark Shadows and hadn’t yet started prep for the mini-series Winds of War.
    “So how to you know Deanne Barkley?” he leaned back in his leather chair looking down at little me from behind his giant desk. Deanne Barkley was then V.P. Movies and Mini-series at NBC, and had told Dan Curtis to interview me. I didn’t think I should tell him the truth, that a mutual friend who often smoked pot on weekends with Deanne in her hot tub at her Bel Air house, had brought me along on several evenings, and I’d managed to hold my own in their lively conversations through the smoke and the steam.
    “We have a mutual friend,” I didn’t lie.
    “And why should I hire you rather than all the other young women vying for a development job here. You have no experience.”
    “Because I have all those years of education getting my Ph.D. You like Gothic material and I've studied Romantic Literature, and can lead you to it; and you get to hire me for minimum wage.”
    “You should be paying me for this job.”
    “Maybe so, but I have to pay rent. I don’t have a trust fund.”
    He wasn’t impressed with my arguments, but he hired me anyway, paying me minimum wage, and re-enforcing the first lesson about the entertainment business, it’s not what you know, but who you know. “I’ll give you a try because Deanne recommended you, and I want to sell her some TV movies. That will be your job.”
    I was 30 years old, over-educated, and completely unprepared.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | December 8, 2013 10:37 PM

    Tristine,
    Thanks for sharing that story. Love the details about the hot tub, the pot, and Super Jew POV.

  • La Reine | December 4, 2013 11:25 PMReply

    Loved this piece - took me back to my first job in the newsroom, which was surprisingly similar in many ways. Evocative and beautifully written. Thanks, Nancy.

  • GRK | November 29, 2013 4:24 AMReply

    If Scorcese said to me blowing off steam at the end of the day.... "This audacious woman walks on the set today and she was way too tall for what I had ordered"....Well, did you tell her that? "Yes, and then she follows me all the way to my office and sits down as if I had invited her in"...and?..."And then she said to me in this sultry voice "I don't have to be tall"...not even a beat passes..Nancy Nigrosh was here? Did she leave? I want to see her.

    In the presence of men Nancy Nigrosh you have always been an Oak and we are mere Willows and we will always proudly bow to you..It's your gift and It's brilliant to watch.

  • Brian | November 27, 2013 11:35 AMReply

    So that was your FIRST job in "the business." Which implies that it led to gainful employment down the road. Did it? And doing what? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | November 27, 2013 1:51 PM

    Brian,
    Yes indeed. This experience gave me a level of understanding that led to many opportunities I was able to make the most of, but mainly in my practice as a literary agent.

  • Chris | November 27, 2013 3:03 AMReply

    Can you guys do more of these for multiple films. This is great!

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