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Location Tales at TCM Classic Film Fest, Bios and Film Biz at LAT Fest of Books

by Anne Thompson
April 24, 2010 10:52 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

This weekend reviews are flowing in from New York's Tribeca, which has been renamed the Alex Gibney Film Festival (per @thefilmcynic). (John Anderson writes him up.) In the middle of the country, folks are enjoying EbertFest (per @ebertchicago), while in LA, both the LATimes Fest of Books (#latfob) and first-ever TCM Classic Film Fest are under way (@ThatRebecca). I was sorry to miss TCM's Jean-Paul Belmondo and Breathless Friday night; Saturday brings Fritz Lang's Complete Metropolis. And both Anjelica and Danny Huston turned up at The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Thompson on Hollywood

Friday morning I interviewed two location managers (Clint Eastwood regular Kokayi Ampah and Frawley Becker, who worked several times with Herbert Ross) and line producer Steve Saeta (Spider-Man) about the vagaries of shooting on location. Often the location manager has to maneuver between the Hollywood suits and the real world. Frawley had to stand up to famed Hollywood power-broker Ray Stark, who questioned his handshake deal with a southern gentleman who had agreed to let them use his stately home as the central location for Steel Magnolias--after watching Frawley correctly dissect his crawfish.

[David Lynch signs at the LAT Fest of Books.]

Thompson on Hollywood

Over the years, the three men agreed, production supervisors at the studios have become less and less knowledgeable, often boasting business training rather than having ever visited a set. Clearly, what makes these location guys good at their jobs is the ability to keep a cool head while delivering what their directors want, often under duress. Saeta's proudest moment was coming through for director Frank Pierson on the TNT movie Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee. "I want to put my actors up there," Pierson said, pointing at the face of Jefferson on Mount Rushmore. After repeatedly being told it was impossible by the superintendent of parks, Saeta channeled his inner child. "Why not?" he kept asking. "Does anyone else go up there?" "Twice a year a cleaning crew goes up," the superintendent said.

"When?"

"September."

"Then we'll go up then," Saeta replied.

During filming on Eastwood's True Crime at San Quentin prison, Ampah realized that prison guards were wearing protective vests---and he wasn't. For Flags of Our Fathers, he was scouting black-sand beaches in Hawaii (nesting turtles were a no-go) when someone told him to check out Iceland.

On Peter Berg's The Kingdom, the Jewish Saeta was anxious about filming in Abu Dhabi, but it would end up being one of his best experiences. The notoriously demanding Michael Bay didn't think Saeta needed to scout Las Vegas for The Island, but Saeta did it anyway. Bay told him he'd have to do a bake sale to make up for the cost of the scout. Saeta happens to be a baker and turned up on set with chocolate chip cookies, prepared to deliver thousands if necessary. The Vegas shoot went smoothly, and Saeta had the last laugh. "He was testing me," he said.

"They all test you," Ampah agreed. On Evolution, Ivan Reitman tested him "every day," he said, and then asked him to do his next picture. Humanity was the best quality to have in a director, Frawley said, citing Cameron Crowe as one example of a director who looked out for his crew.

Ampah's high point was shooting Tim Burton's Mars Attacks in Washington, D.C. and bringing in tanks and Howitzers. "You could not do that today," he said.

Thompson on Hollywood

The LAT Fest of Books green room was fun, where the likes of authors Joseph Wambaugh, James Ellroy and Richard Schickel hang out before annd after their panels. For my Saturday panel, "Life in the Biz," I interviewed the authors of three very different books: Tom Kemper's Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, UCLA sociology professor Darnell Hunt's Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities, and The Hollywood Reporter's Alex Ben Block, writer-editor of George Lucas's Blockbusting. I learned a lot of things I did not know from all three.

Blockbusting is a valuable resource for any film journalist; it covers 300 films (chosen by Lucas), and as Block admitted, uses domestic figures (corrected to 2005) so that all six of Lucas's Star Wars films appear to best advantage on the list of the highest grossers. Kemper, who teaches at Crossroads and USC, thought he would focus on agenting in the 50s, but wound up getting into great archival material from Myron Selznick and Charles Feldman as well as many agencies that revealed the formative years of Hollywood agenting in the 20s and 30s. His book reveals agents as the necessary glue that keeps Hollywood running, from hand-holding fractious stars like Vivien Leigh, who tried to walk off Gone with the Wind, to creatively engineering ways to get more back-end money for their talent--a lot earlier than Jimmy Stewart's Winchester '73.

Hunt thinks the gap between the real black Los Angeles (which is well-researched by 23 writers in his 440-page book) and the one portrayed in films and television is still to be bridged. Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are not there yet, while TV's The Cosby Show was one of the most influential evocations of black life in American media in terms of altering perception for blacks and whites alike. Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington as Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins, was a more positive antidote to the constant reminders of gang violence and the like.

I checked out A. Scott Berg's biography panel which featured three women authors. Cari Beachamp realized that Joseph P. Kennedy kept popping up as she was doing research for another book, so she collected all the clips she could. It turned out that he had real impact on Hollywood during the four years that he was living in L.A. (1926 -1930), dating mega-star Gloria Swanson and running three studios at once. He was the first and only outsider to fleece Hollywood, said Beauchamp, making millions as he turned the companies around during a time of consolidation as sound was coming in; seven companies emerged in 1932. Kennedy put leaders from Wall Street on the boards of the studios for the first time. The business changed as a result of Kennedy, who favored bottom-line-oriented commerce, which has retained the upper hand to this day.

FDR made Kennedy head of the SEC, saying: "It takes a thief to catch a thief." He knew what people did, and corrected it, said Beauchamp. "We could use him today." Later, Roosevelt kept Kennedy in London because he kept being mentioned as one of his six heirs, before FDR ran for a third presidential term. As Ambassador, Kennedy had to behave.

Kirstin Downey gave up her career at the Washington Post in order to finish her book on Frances Perkins, the labor secretary during FDR's administration who pushed through many New Deal programs including child labor laws, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, and social security. She's a hugely important figure who has been erased by history. No longer.

Linda Gordon just won the LAT biography book prize for her bio of photographer Dorothea Lange, whose career benefited from Perkins' New Deal programs. Both Lange and FDR had polio. She wore pants to hide her wizened leg. Most of Lange's photos are not well-known except for her iconic Depression-era shots. She worked slowly, spending time with her subjects to make their body language more relaxed. She shot Japanese internment camps, and travelled to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Her photos are accessible at the Library of Congress website, which has a good search engine.

[Authors Alex Ben Block, Tom Kemper, Darnell Hunt]

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