I’m kind of freaked out, and I think you should be, too.
If you haven’t heard what’s going on, by tomorrow morning, you will. They’re going to hype the shit out of it because they don’t get it, and because they’re thinking it’s just like Cameron and his 3-D crap, which it most definitely is not. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to say any of this to anyone (beside you). I’m going to smile and bite my tongue while I’m in marketing & strategy meetings with all the big boys at the studio because there’s no point in getting my head chopped off. Maybe it’s always been this way, but now, it’s even more important to be a team player, or seem like one at least. Look, Rick’s a good director. I’m not saying he’s not. But I don’t really know if I want to be a lifelong member of Team Rick, and I’m hoping that you won’t either when you know the whole story. So do me a favor: turn off the TV and don’t listen to the radio, and no matter what, avoid the pop-up ads. They’ll just make you curious about Rick’s film, and curiosity is not a good thing right now.
A lot of people are thinking Rick’s like this genius and that he can do no wrong. But a year ago when I first met him, no one knew who he was. I mean the guy had a little bit of juice, but not much. Jay, one of the gaffers on the shoot, told me that Rick used to do a lot of commercials when he was a young director, and then one day, he just kind of lost it on set. Halfway through a take, instead of yelling, “cut”, Rick whispered, “no more” to his assistant. Then, he got his cameraman to film him crush his cell phone with a light stand while his actors looked on. It didn’t end there, either. Rick then locked himself into an editing booth and took the next day to cut the footage down into a kind of music video set to that Prince song about 1999. I forgot what it’s called, but you know the one. Anyway, he sent copies to his agent and to the company he was supposedly making the commercial for. Then he took off for Alaska and no one saw him for a few years.
Fast-forward to a year ago when he resurfaced with an idea for a doc. He got some funding (though no one’s sure from where) and decided he was going to make a film about a dispute that the Malibu City Council was having with some of the town’s residents. On one side, you had a lot of the wealthier people who lived there freaking out about whether or not a homeless shelter should be built a couple blocks away from the high school. On the other side, you had the council members saying the lot was perfect and sent the right message to young people. In my opinion, this was not the stuff of great drama, but Rick was pretty serious about the project. On the first day of shooting, I heard him tell Don Fagan, the cameraman (who unlike Rick, had a lot of juice) that we were trying to capture the greed of a society, or something like that. That kind of turned out to be B.S., though. Rick wasn’t interested in society. For some reason, he had a hard-on for two particular families: the Ostrows and the Lees.
No one was sure why. There were a lot of powerful people against the shelter—rich and famous celebrities like a certain angry drunk who made the Jesus movie a few years back—you know the one. But who does Rick fixate on? The Lees, who own a chain of fucking supermarkets, and the Ostrows, who made their money on a bunch of small casinos in Nevada that no one’s ever heard of. YAWN! Ok, so maybe they had kick-ass houses right on the beach and they drove around in nice cars, but nothing made them stand out from their neighbors. They were boring on paper and on film, so no one really got what Rick was up to, and no one said anything until Fagan spoke up.
That guy is a real pro (he’s shot for Spielberg or Soderberg—one of the Bergs) and about the third day in, he pulled Rick off to the side, telling him he was making a big mistake focusing on these families. It’d been a long day of shooting with James Lee, the oldest son. All the guy could talk about was the price of ketchup and how his mother’s chain of supermarkets had somehow revolutionized the price scheme for all the condiments they sold. We kept trying to keep him on point, but the guy wanted to make every answer into a commercial for his mom’s stores. A true believer, I guess. That’s when Fagan pulled Rick off to the side. A lot of us at the time thought it was a bone-head move considering that Rick had violence issues. But then again there was something different about this new, post-Alaska Rick. He was calmer, and instead of hitting Fagan with a light stand, he reassured him that there was a point to what he was doing, which in a way, might’ve been true because the next day when we were interviewing Ju Hyun (the hard-core Korean mom and from what I could tell, the real boss of the family), she admitted that in her view, homeless people would be better off if they were zapped. Rick had asked her to talk about the homeless problem and what the city should do about it, and she said something about shocking them and then made this buzz sound—like she had a kazoo stuck between her lips. No one was sure what she was saying. James, who was sitting next to her on the sofa, could tell we were confused and off-camera, he translated. He told us that his mom thought we should shock homeless people—as in electric shock, as in kazoo-sounding, electric-buzzing shock. The room was quiet. Everyone was trying not to laugh. The boom guy’s face was tensing up to keep the rest of his body from shaking and fucking up the sound. But from where I was sitting, I could see Rick’s profile and the look on his face was pretty clear. Fucker had a money shot and he knew it.
Still, that kind of juicy stuff was few and far between, and by the end of the four weeks of shooting, Fagan had almost quit eight times and was asking Rick not to use his name on the finished product. When we wrapped up, he turned over the footage he shot and wished Rick luck and then rushed off in his classic BMW. I didn’t think Fagan was wrong, but then again, I didn’t think the movie was going to get a distributor, and so I didn’t see the point of getting angry about it.
Anyway, a few months later, I’d forgotten about the movie when I got a call from Jay, who I stayed in touch with because he seemed like a pretty good guy to know, and he told me that Rick was going to screen a rough cut at this small theater north of Montana. It was one of those tiny art-houses that stay alive mainly because of old people who listen to NPR and teenagers who don’t have a better place to feel each other up. I went because free food is free food, and there was an open bar. I thought I was going to be one of the few people to show, but when I got there, I realized that I’d underestimated Rick—which you should never do.
The lobby was packed. There were all the people who were in the film and their families, and almost everyone in the crew was there, as well. Even Fagan was present. He was there with a tall, blond chick who was like a third his age and double his height. I guessed that he and Rick had buried the hatchet because more than once, I saw them talking in the corner. It was kind of funny to see them. Rick was also younger and taller than Fagan, and when they stood next to each other, Fagan looked like a proud dad, beaming and shit about his son’s achievements.
As for the movie, I have no clue how it turned out because at the last minute, just before the doors to the screening room opened, Rick asked if he could have the crew stay in the lobby. As soon as all the families were in, he came up to us and apologized. He has this way of talking, which you should watch out for. He can be a dick, but you let it go because he seems like he feels bad about it. Anyway, he told us how much he appreciated us and that he was looking to put together another project really soon, and some other shit. Basically, he was telling us without telling us that we couldn’t see the movie, and you know what? No one complained. Partly, it was because Rick seemed like he was genuinely sad not to have us in, and partly, it was because he kept the bar open for the whole time the movie was playing.
When the screening was over, Jay, Fagan, and I were completely smashed on this drink that the bartender made for us. He said it didn’t have a name—not that we held that against him or the drink. As looped as we all were, we still noticed the way everyone looked when they came out of the theater. I remember looking out for the Lees, especially. They weren’t a smiley family in general, but I thought they looked really unfriendly after the screening. I figured that Rick kept the scene with Ju Hyun. Who wants their mother admitting on-camera that she wants to take a zapper to some poor homeless guy?
I stuck my head in to the theater after the families were gone. A couple critics were sitting up front for a Q&A with Rick. It was kind of weird, and I should’ve realized then that something was different about this movie. Usually, these guys like to tear directors a new one, but the few critics who showed, all small-time from local weeklies, were taking turns telling Rick what a great film he’d made. One guy even called Rick’s film a game-changer. I remember thinking that that moron should hang it up and I was drunk enough that I almost did. But before I could say anything, Rick basically told the guy to shut up. He was standing up in front of the screen with a skinny palm up in traffic-cop formation with that serene, guru-smile of his.
It actually reminded me of this Jesus statue that used to scare me at my mom’s church when I was a kid. The real difference was that Jesus-Rick, unlike my mom’s statue, had a bunch of tattoos running up along his arms. Anyway, Jesus-Rick looked at the room, all Messiah-like and said, “I agree. The movie was just the way it should be.” That’s all. Then he put down his microphone and walked up the center aisle, passing the critics and me and the rest of his drunk crew as he made his way out of the theater.
The next morning, my roommate woke me up early because he was yelling about something on TV. There, on the morning news, was Tobias Ostrow and Ju Hyun Lee standing in front of the Lee house—a glass box that sat on the edge of the Pacific. There were a bunch of microphones in their serious-as-shit faces as they told all of us unemployed-types who are home to watch local daytime news their plans to sell everything and give the proceeds to the homeless shelters in the area, including the shelter in Malibu that they were against. Both families were there—sons, daughters, grandkids—all of them looking calm and blissed-out in the background. And then at some point, I guess Tobias wasn’t sure he’d made his point clearly enough or his 100 million dollar donation to LA’s homeless just didn’t do it for him. Toward the end of the press conference, he started stripping down. I think it was an act of solidarity with the poor or something. By the time the reporter cut to the anchor back in the studio, he was down to his underwear and he looked like he wasn’t going to stop there.
I tried to go back to sleep, but a few minutes later, my roommate was at my door again. This time he was putting a phone in my face. It was Derrek, the guy who hooks me up with my PA jobs. Rick was going to shoot a follow-up, Derrek told me, and he wanted to know if I wanted to work on the project. It sounded great at the time. I was going to get paid for three weeks even though most of the shooting was going to happen during one night. Derrek didn’t know anything else, but he said the pay was solid, and that it seemed like Rick was on his way back up with the studio execs who’d already heard about the reaction the movie got the night before. Needless to say, I took the job. I mean, why not?
Well tonight, when we shot the follow-up, I sure as shit got my answer.
The premise for the second film was even thinner than it was for the first. We were supposed to film people before and after the screening of the first movie to see their reaction and to get their views on homelessness in general. I guess Rick was trying to be all post-modern or something—a film within a film. Anyway, tonight’s screening was a much bigger deal than the first one. I guess you could say it was a big Hollywood opening, which is weird for a documentary during the summer, but like I said before, the execs were thinking there was something special about Rick’s film, which meant that a lot of people were coming out for it.
It’s not like I’ve been to a lot of them, but the big screenings I’ve managed to get myself invited to, aren’t really anything special. Beautiful people and nice clothes and fake smiles on one side and blond entertainment reporters (they’re always blond, which is fine with me) standing around with paparazzi doing their thing on the other. Most people think it’s exciting, but all those reporters and the cameras are there for the handful of stars who someone else arranged to show up. It’s not usually about the movie. It’s about the hype and the chance to be seen again so you are part of the hype. Even the red carpet isn’t very fancy. On TV, it looks soft and plush, but it’s more like red AstroTurf when you’re on it.
For Rick’s movie, or his movie within a movie, the AstroTurf was out, and the fake smiles and the paparazzi were all there, too, but there was something else. I don’t want to sound gay or anything, but I think a lot of the people who showed up were a little hopeful. Word had gotten out that Rick’s documentary convinced, or at least played a major role in convincing, two wealthy families to give up everything they own. So there were a lot of people there looking to be moved as well. I don’t think they wanted to be as moved as the Ostrows or the Lees, but still, they wanted to feel something. I haven’t been in the business that long, but I’ve come to think that all the fake crying that actors have to do when they’re on film or fake smiling at the cameras makes them really hungry to feel something real.
Anyway, before the screening, Rick told me to go around and get people to come over and be interviewed. Some of the bigger stars (think beautiful, youngish actress who likes to have kids who is together with another super-famous actor who left a perky, less-famous actress who was also there) weren’t that interested in talking to us. The B and C-list stars (think doctors on hospital shows and reality TV personalities—a lot of them also blonde) were chomping at the bit though when they got their turn, but they all said the same thing. They thought it was terrible and they all wanted to pitch in and make people aware, and they knew the movie was amazing, and they went on yakking until Rick yelled a polite thank you from behind the camera.
We kept filming like this until everyone got to their seats. That’s when Rick once again asked the crew to stay in the lobby, though this time, he didn’t have to. We wouldn’t have had time to see the movie even if we’d wanted to. The final cut came in at 98 minutes, but it wasn’t more than a few minutes before some starlets came out into the lobby and walked past us toward the bathroom. One, then another. Then another and another. After about five of them came out, Fagan told me to go ask one if we could talk to her. I noticed that Rick, who was there with us, didn’t say anything, but he did have his guru-smile full-on.
The starlet I spoke to (I don’t know her name but I think she’s in one of the vampire movies that keeps coming out every other month) didn’t say a thing. She looked at me, and then at the camera, which was lurking behind me, and then she kept walking toward the bathroom. I thought maybe she was bored or stoned and didn’t want to have to admit to either on film. Then a couple other actresses walked out of the bathroom, and they looked different than they did when they got there. They had the same blank stares but they looked less hot than before.
Fagan, all of the sudden, yelled something at the lighting guy, and they were hustling to get a good spot behind me and then it hit me: these women weren’t wearing any make-up. They also were watching Fagan set up his camera, but they weren’t trying to get ready for the shot or looking for the angle that made them look best. They put themselves front and center, plain-Jane and serious-as-shit, and most surprising of all, they didn’t say a word. We tried to get them to talk, but they wouldn’t say anything. They just looked into the camera, and then they waved, and then they walked off.
By the end of the movie, every single person who came out of the screening room did exactly the same thing. One by one, they left. Everyone, the big-wigs, the good looking actress with her flock of diversity, the super-famous actor and the actress he divorced, all those Hollywood doctors. They walked by us and into the bathroom and then a few minutes later, they walked out looking plainer and sadder than before. Even the guys—especially the guys.
By the time everybody was gone, Fagan started yelling at Rick. He was frustrated and confused. But Rick, like he’d done before, smiled and turned up his Jesus-palm and told us to wait and see. Fagan didn’t like it, but that wasn’t new. No one really understood the point of the shoot or what Rick was after, but that wasn’t new, either. After a while, we packed everything up and headed home, and, at least some of us, were just happy to get paid.
As it turns out, that dumb-ass critic who I wanted to yell at was right. Rick’s movie is a game-changer. I’ve been watching the news all night and it’s craziness. In the last two hours, twenty-five up-and-coming actors have committed suicide. And when the local news guys aren’t talking about that, they’re cutting to press conferences all over LA where rich people are giving up everything they own. Everyone seems to be giving what they can—a lot of money, cars, their space on the planet when all else fails. You name it. And what do all these people have in common? They all saw Rick’s movie.
You know how the whole 3-D thing was so big last summer? Well fuck 3-D. It’s nothing compared to Rick’s view of the world. I know that tomorrow, I’m going to hear that his movie is going to be mass-released; some exec is thinking that all this attention is going to bring people into the theaters. I’m not sure why they’re bothering. One day, you won’t even have a choice. They, I don’t know who exactly, but some group of people who are all fucked up on Rick’s film, will come up to your nice house and take you to your local cineplex and make you see it. I can’t say I have proof. It just seems like that’s coming.
Is there anything you can do? How the hell should I know? Maybe you should tell someone to hide your money for you until this thing blows over, like the 3-D thing will. Or maybe you should get away to some small country where distribution is really difficult.
Look, all I’m saying is that you should take some precautions. And if by the time this whole Rick-thing blows over like every other fad in the movies does, if then, you still own something, then remember who warned you. The film industry is going to shit, and I’m going to need a job.