ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
BAILING OUT ON LOS ANGELES
Nov. 9, 2001
I moved to Los Angeles when I was eighteen years old, in 1976, strictly because I wanted to write and direct movies. In the intervening twenty-five years I have written and directed four feature films, but none of them were for Hollywood studios -- all of my films are independents. My second film, Lunatics: A Love Story, was purchased by a major studio, Columbia Pictures, after it was completed, and has subsequently gotten the worst release of any of my films. Now the film is a collector's item and more difficult to find than a D. W. Griffith silent short from 1910.
The bottom line is that Hollywood doesn't want me or my films. No distributors will even watch my last film, If I Had a Hammer. I am perfectly welcome in Hollywood as a TV director, which is why I'm a member of the Director's Guild of America, not because of my films. In fact, my films have gotten me into trouble at the DGA. Technically, I am thought of as a one-hour dramatic television director. It's a living, but that's not why I went to Hollywood.
The film business has gone to hell in a handcar in the last twenty-five years and I've gotten to watch the whole messy affair close up. You see, I didn't move to Hollywood to just make movies. I wanted to make good movies, or at least my interpretation of good. And since I grew up watching cool, interesting, artistic examples of high quality movies, that's what I decided I wanted to do with my life -- make good movies. Not just any movies, good ones.
Sadly, however, they don't make good movies in Hollywood anymore. I was tricked. Then again, maybe it was me being in Hollywood that ruined the whole deal. If movies suddenly get really good again now that I've left, then we'll know why.
But I bet it probably wasn't me. The film industry in Hollywood was in the midst of a serious change when I arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, in 1976. I lived right near Columbia Pictures, which was still located on Gower Ave., where it always had been (beside Poverty Row, where all the really low-budget pictures were made). On either side of Columbia's innocuous front doors were black stone bas-reliefs of Harry and Joe Cohen, founders of Columbia Pictures (a famous Hollywood story goes that when Harry Cohen, who was considered disagreeable and foul-mouthed, was buried at the Hollywood Cemetery and a large crowd turned out, Danny Kaye quipped, "You see, you give the people what they want and they'll show up"). Anyway, one day I was walking past the studio and suddenly, instead of Harry and Joe Cohen's profiles, there were discolored squares on the white stucco wall where the reliefs had been. I went inside and asked the guard what happened to the plaques of Harry and Joe? The guard promptly replied, "They got thrown out."
Columbia Pictures moved to Burbank onto the Warner Brothers' lot. Then MGM moved out of their Culver City lot and I actually watched as the big Leo the lion sign was taken down with a crane and no doubt thrown out. Now MGM is located in an office building and has no lot. 20th Century-Fox sold off most of their back lot which became Century City, a concrete high-rise enclave that is a blight on an already ugly city.
Hollywood changed. The last Golden Age of movies, from 1967 to 1976, was the final gasp of creativity that occurred between the old studio system dropping dead of old age and the new corporate age taking over. I've watched this corporate, lawyer- and agent-run film business sputter and cough its way down a long incline to its present lowly state. I watched it all happen and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I got to Hollywood dreaming of making my own films like Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show, neither of which cost more than two million dollars, and when I got there they had completely stopped making anything under ten million dollars. Now they won't make anything under twenty million. And the average Hollywood film is now fifty-five million dollars!
Do you have any idea how much interference fifty-five million dollars buys you? Way more than artistic films like Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show could have possibly withstood. I learned to deal with this interference directing TV -- where it wasn't my product, nor even my script -- and it's still directing, but it completely doesn't interest me like directing movies. The only one of my four films where I had to deal with this sort of thing was Lunatics because it was made for a company other than my own. I was put through fourteen rewrites until I didn't know what I was rewriting or why, just that I wanted to get a film made. Just wanting to get movies made no matter what they are isn't a good enough motivation, at least not for me since I really do care how they turn out.
My kind of films and my kind of thinking are now outmoded. I'm like a blacksmith after the advent of automobiles. Why bother writing an interesting well-structured story -- a thing that has to be carefully considered and lovingly nurtured -- when you can just call the weapons rental house and order a truckload of machine guns, or a special effects house and order millions of dollars worth of zip and zoom, which is all the kids really want anyway, right?
Well, I think that's bullshit. That's not really what anyone wants. Everyone goes to the movies to be transported into other people's lives, and hopefully lose their own for a couple of hours. If guns are necessary to the story then use them. If special effects can help this process, great. But effects are a tool, like filters and gels or dollies or cranes. They aren't the point and they never will be. Great movies can be made without any of that crap.
That's another one of my problems with Hollywood -- I honestly don't give a shit what kids want. Movies don't all have to be for kids. In fact, most of them shouldn't be. Come on, we adults outnumber those dumb kids. I'm totally sick of hearing about the wonders of being a child, as many of our biggest directors never shut up about. The hell with the wonders of being a child. For me movies are a visual, aural, intellectual form. When Cloris Leachman reaches out and touches Timothy Bottoms' cheek at the end of The Last Picture Show and says, "Never you mind," it moved me when I was thirteen years old and it moves me now. To believe that kids are only interested in stupid action stories or animated nonsense is to underestimate all of humanity and ultimately brings us all down.
LA is also not a particularly friendly or conducive place for cheap independent films to be made. You get taxed by the city, county, and state (I'm still paying taxes and fines to the city of LA from shooting Hammer in 1999), the rules are complex, locations are expensive, and post houses are frequently snotty. Yes, that's where most of the talent is located, but let's face it, they'll go anywhere. All you have to do is cast in LA. I must quickly add that Deluxe Labs have been wonderful to me. I've worked with them twice and would certainly do it again. But that doesn't mean I have to live near them.
LA itself though is basically just not a friendly or a happy place. Everyday in LA is like being stuck in a big snarled traffic jam on a hot smoggy day with an overheating radiator. Everyday. After about fifteen years of actually living in Hollywood, which is a real shit-hole, I finally found my way out to Santa Monica, not too far from the beach. That's the place to live if you're going to be in LA, it's appreciably cooler and the air is cleaner, but the quality of life was still pretty low. The noise was so constant and aggravating that I don't think I got a decent night's sleep the whole time I was there. Homeless people digging through the trash, kids hanging out, Harleys snarling past, neglected dogs barking endlessly, neighbors playing electric guitars, slamming doors, yelling, loud TVs late at night, an upstairs neighbor that lifted weights and dropped them, sirens and more sirens and more sirens until you can't hear them, car alarms, car accidents right outside your window, horns honking, leaf blowers whining constantly, the neighbor that mowed his helpless lawn everyday, on and on and on. While sleeping in LA, on some level I was always prepared to jump to my feet and run out of the building as fast as I could. I always slightly felt like I was on a patrol in the jungle in Vietnam.
There are so many near-misses on the road in LA due to oblivious drivers that sooner or later the odds have to catch up with you. Either you will hit somebody or somebody will hit you. I'm a slow driver all in all, but I was constantly almost getting into car accidents. Cell phones have actually made the horrendous traffic problem in LA worse.
And let's not leave out the cost of living. My car insurance dropped by half the moment I left LA.
As Woody Allen said of the film business, "It's not dog-eat-dog, it's dog-doesn't-call-dog-back." It's ultimately an uncaring, soul-killing, cut-throat place, where the product is not the issue, just "the deal." Well, honestly, I don't give a shit about the deal, only the product. As God is my witness, I will never sit in some asshole executive or agent's waiting room, with my proverbial hat in my hand, waiting to be seen. They've got nothing for me anymore.
I've had eight different agents and not one of them ever got me a job. I've pitched at every major and minor studio numerous times and have never gotten a deal. Although I've always loved movies, I'm clearly not a Hollywood kind of guy and it's just taken me twenty-five years to recognize it. Basically, I just grew tired of waiting for the phone to ring. After twenty-five years, 28 screenplays, nine years' worth of TV shows, and four feature films, there's simply nothing left to be said on the other end of that call that could possibly matter enough to me to be worth all of my wasted time. To be hired now on some big, multi-million dollar film would no longer be any kind of payoff to me. I simply couldn't deal with all of the crap that it would entail and would no doubt be fired before shooting began.
Good movies are the personal expression of a few artistic people and cannot be made by committees, as Hollywood demands that they must be now. When a committee of executives reads a script, everything that is not plot-oriented will be removed. Well, plots are not the most important part of stories, characters are. Today's studio executives don't understand this and never will. As John Gregory Dunne said, "Every studio executive thinks that they are a writer, if they just had the time. That the writer actually does have the time makes them an asshole."
Ultimately, no one is going to finance my films and let me make them the way I want to, like Woody Allen or the Coen brothers. It just ain't gonna happen. After twenty-five years of waiting I feel fairly certain of this. And I absolutely don't want to make their movies; I only want to make my movies. I also suspect that the television industry will survive without me. So I'll just continue to make my independent films, whenever I can wrangle enough money together.
Besides, the best part about LA to me for nearly twenty years was my friend Rick Sandford. Rick was the ultimate movie geek and saw twice as many movies as me. Every morning Rick and I would talk on the phone and he'd tell me what films he was going to see that day. I could go with him or not, he was still going to see those films. His taste was wonderfully eclectic and we'd often end up at the LA County Museum, UCLA or USC seeing films no one had ever heard of. By the early 1990s Rick was as disappointed with Hollywood films as I am now. Not willing to give up his favorite pastime, however, Rick switched almost exclusively to seeing documentaries, independents, and foreign films. His theory about Hollywood films, which I still think is valid, was that if any of the characters is holding a gun on the poster, avoid the film at all costs. Well, Rick died in 1995, and my biggest enjoyment in LA went with him. That's when I pretty much stopped going to the movies.
For the past eight years I've been able to see every new movie for free at the Director's Guild, and have only bothered going once or twice. I now only watch recent movies on TV and I generally bail out during the first thirty minutes. Hollywood films are now unworthy of the effort of driving to the theater and parking.
Whatever you may think of my films is neither here nor there. They're the films I wanted to make and I made them. And I can make more of them anywhere I want. I don't need to be in LA. Two of my films were made in Detroit, so I already know this for a fact.
My good buddy Bruce Campbell, who lives right up the street from me here in Oregon, and I are thinking about making a western film from a story we've been working on for several years called Warpath. I'm thinking we'll shoot in color 16mm for about $150,000, perhaps next summer.
There's no law that says a film has to cost millions of dollars. Every film stands alone and is as viable as any other film, whether it's made in Zimbabwe, Hollywood or Oregon. Vittorio DeSica and Roberto Rossellini made films in Italy during and immediately after the German occupation, with no money, no sets, and frequently even without actors, and the films are classics.
I can't change Hollywood, I'll just have to do the best I can with what I have. That's what I've always done anyway. The scenery up here is utterly breathtaking, so I've got that going for me. Add some sweeping music, and voila! You've got an epic.