Hollywood’s a funny place. When I was in the middle of my desperate claw up the gilded and greased cliffs of codified mediocrity some people call the American film industry, I was working on what most of us will always call the MGM lot. SONY has since spent a lot of money trying to make the worker bees forget that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had once turned out two movies a week on that shrinking piece of Culver City real estate, but it was a thrill, really, to walk past the guards in those days, and they’d know your name—even if you were young and stupid, which we were. Today, of course, you have to produce two kinds of I.D. and they check you for explosives. If they let you near the lot at all.
Everything’s different now.
I had a cutting room in a building full of cutting rooms way back in the corner of the lot where it was quiet and there wasn’t a lot of foot traffic. I’ll never forget the time I walked out of the door at dusk. (Magic Hour we call it, when the sun is down but the sky is full of light. Terrence Malick shot most of the night exteriors in Days of Heaven during this roughly 20-minute period, day after day, in tiny little pieces, a triumph of cinematography.)
It was the beginning of the computer era in post production, and I was a little woozy after a long day of gunfights and love scenes on the monitor. I came face to face with a pair of wolves the size of Harleys, their yellow eyes glowing primeval, tugging at the leashes of their handlers. After perfunctory sniffs in my direction, and with a definite sense of animal purpose, they slid away into the shadows, almost like they were on tracks. Coppola was shooting Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the lot. The wolves probably pulled down five grand a day apiece, and they were worth every penny. They were huge and terrifying in a Lovecraftian way and it was magic.
I was having a late lunch on a Friday in the commissary with the rest of the gang when Natalie Wood floated in on a scent of something fabulous. She took the table next to us and smiled. She was shooting that 70mm freak-out movie Brainstorm with Christopher Walken. I remarked later that she was still one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. By Monday morning she’d be dead, washed-up off Catalina in a down parka and a negligee.
One Spring the lot was full of pirates. Steven Spielberg was shooting Hook, with Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and a slightly unfocused Julia Roberts. The pirates had a lot of major Greyhound bus station-sitting around to do, because Hook was a big old-fashioned studio film, shot completely inside on sound stages, and these things take time. The extras would be doing Hollywood movie-pirate sorts of things like practicing their swordplay and brandishing their pistols and lining up at the phone booth to call their agents. The entire fleet of them was color-coordinated. They wore orange and gold and mustard and turmeric and feathers and leather and brass. It was a Technicolor fetishist’s dream scene, and it too was magic.
I finished the cowboy movie I was working on and took a couple months off. When I returned in August, the pirates were still there. I couldn’t believe it. What studio picture shoots for MONTHS like that? A hundred make-believe pirates who all need costumers and makeup and food and…and….Oh. Right. Spielberg. Et al. Magic, etc.
My older son at four was a freak for pirates. He ate, drank, slept and dreamed pirates. He was really into drawing at that age, and his proudest possession was what he called his “Hook Book.” I had bound his collection of pirate drawings, along with some of my own attempts at peglegs and Jolly Rogers and damsels in distress into a volume that was at least an inch-and-a-half thick. What made the Hook Book special was that our drawings, for the most part, were on the back side of my rough drafts, my ersatz budgets, my love-letters-never-sent and, yes, my failures. The Hook Book was a veritable palimpsest of our lives together, my boy and me, and it was his most precious thing. It remains today one of mine.
Damn, I said to myself one day, I gotta take the boy to see these Hollywood pirates!
I took the four-year-old into the editing room in the A.M. and he worked on his Hook Book all morning. At lunch we ate something yummy and then the show began.
We turned a corner on the way back to the cutting room and there they were—a hundred and fifty million pirates in the noonday sun. The child went berserk. Pirates! Swords! Guns! Eye patches and scars. Beards and boots and bangles. Buccaneers of every shape and size leered their way down to him:
“Arrrgh! Kin ye say ‘ARRRRGH!?’ If ye kin say ARRRRGAHHH! Ye kin be a PIRATE!” We were both having the time of our lives as we sauntered from sound stage to sound stage containing Neverland, a jungle, an island village on the coast. We surfed a sea of noisy vibrant goldenrod-tawny-citrine-canary-quince-colored pirates.
And there it was: The Ship. The boy saw it immediately for what it was, Captain Hook’s full-sized pirate boat floating on a tank of water inside the biggest sound stage you can imagine. We had arrived.
Now Hook’s pirate ship was a big fucking deal in Hollywood, you better believe that. Every two-bit agent in town had wangled his brat and his brat’s best buddies onto the lot for a gander at Hook’s ship. But the boy and I were stopped at the three-story high sliding soundproof OPEN stage door by an asshole. There was the ship, twenty feet away, and here was this guard, doing what he thought was his job.
“Closed set,” he hissed, not even sounding CLOSE to being a pirate. “No admittance.” The air just went out of the day, like that.
The boy looked at me, confused.
Now, in those days, such an obviously annoying thing could really get my considerable dander up. We’d just been…fucking FROLICKING with the Goddamned Pirates of Steven Spielberg’s Fabulous HOOK right there in FRONT of this guy. DAVID GODDAMN CROSBY had just fought my son in a duel to the death and lost and…no ADMITTANCE?!
Before I got too wound up and got us thrown off the lot, though, I heard a familiar voice:
She was backlit, but I recognized her immediately. Let’s call her Evangeline Pettigrew for the sake of anonymity. We’d worked together on a film five or six years previously.
We kissed and hugged and—time being money on a movie set—she said “You wanna see the ship?”
“Yeah!” piped up my little bright-eyed pirate.
“Here,” she said, “take my badge.”
We sauntered back to the big soundstage door, which now was in the process of closing. The guard was standing in the open regular little door filling it with his considerable bulk.
“Hey,” he said, genius obviously apparent, “you’re not Evangeline Pettigrew!”
“Of course he isn’t,” said Steven Spielberg. “You wanna see the ship?”
One of the kindest, most generous and thoughtful (not to mention busiest) directors in Hollywood gave my four-year-old son a half-hour tour of a thing miraculous. He introduced him to Robin Williams
, which confused the child of course. And he took the kid up to Captain Hook’s cabin, and opened Hook’s treasure chest, and he gave the boy a piece of “gold.” And then, suddenly, like in a dream you can only have once in a lifetime, Captain Hook
himself appeared at the door, and in a voice that didn’t sound anything like Dustin Hoffman’s
he said to my precious little boy:
“Arrgh. Can you say arrrrgh? If you can say arrrgh, you can be a pirate.”
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
Six Feet Under
We Were Soldiers