Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shilling for Hollywood

A new collector-oriented CD appeared recently, an Intrada re-release of two film soundtracks from 1978 and 1980 offering the music from An Unmarried Woman and The Stunt Man, respectively. Usually such collector-demand items reappear with extra music, alternate cues, remixed tracks, etc., but this one simply reissues the three-decades-old LPs on a single CD. There's a small but very vocal coterie of film soundtrack fans (maybe 3000 to 5000 worldwide) who watch for these specialized items and scoop them up; recent sold-out mini-"blockbusters" have been a two-CD set devoted to Jerry Goldsmith's music for Alien and an eight-CD box set reprising the music from all four original Superman movies (much of it appearing on CD for the first time), by John Williams, Ken Thorne, and others.

Thinking about that Stunt Man movie, starring Peter O'Toole, sexy Barbara Hershey, and a very paranoid Steve Railsback, reminded me of the two or three years I spent slightly involved in marketing a handful of films from Hollywood and elsewhere. For a couple of decades, Sixties to Eighties, about, the major Seattle-area personage in art-house cinemas and some specialized distribution was an exhibitor entrepreneur named Randy Finlay who at one time owned the Guild 45th, the Neptune, the Varsity, and the Seven Gables theaters plus what eventually became the Metro Cinemas. Back then, the Emerald City was known as a moviegoers' town, with a liberal-minded audience supportive of so-called art-house movies; this was, of course, before the multiplexes took over. Finlay and I met somewhere, and after a time he asked me to help him launch a few movies in Seattle and other Northwest markets.

My memories are a bit hazy on some titles, but I do remember three in particular. The first one was then-newcomer-director John Sayles' first feature, the small independent film titled Return of the Secaucus Seven, which had a fine group of basically unknown young actors and actresses portraying leftish/hippy friends enjoying a reunion picnic, revisiting some of their past political exploits (I think; haven't viewed it since the Seventies). Anyway, Finlay asked me to help create the local advertising/marketing for the unknown film.

I loved it, thought it was so much truer to the spirit of the Sixties than Hollywood's harebrained attempts at youth exploitation. I suggested some straighforward copy for print ads and persuaded Randy that the radio spots should just be a sound montage, snippets of film dialogue edited together, presented with a minimum of hype (like the movie itself). Working at one of the sound studios we used for Rainier's radio ads, I oversaw the editing and came up with 30- and 60-second versions. These met Finlay's approval, and were then used to entice film fans in Seattle and Portland areas into the theaters, with resulting positive word-of-mouth doing the rest.

Sayles' debut film was well-launched up in this corner of the U.S., then a success elsewhere, and so his own directing career was given a small boost. (Some people claim that Lawrence Kashdan stole much of The Big Chill's plot and characters from Sayles' movie. Let's be kind and just say it was "influenced.") Sayles' working mode at the time, and often since, was to script movies for other producers and then use his writer fees to finance his own independent productions like Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, City of Hope, Lone Star, Sunshine State, and many more. I actually got to meet Sayles at the Seattle premiere of Brother and told him about my efforts of behalf of Secaucus Seven, but his response was tepid and dismissive; I don't think he even said Thanks!

Meanwhile, the second film I got called in on was a French import titled The Little Sparrow, a bio-pic on the life of, yes, Edith Piaf, whose nickname was "the Little Sparrow." This was the late-Seventies I think, 30 years before the recent international succes d'estime of La Vie en Rose, starring Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard as the living-on-the-edge chanteuse (France's own Billie Holiday/Judy Garland figure), with Piaf's voice performing the title tune, "Milord," "Non, je ne regrette rien," and other international hits. That recent film was brilliant, deserving of its surprise success, while the earlier Little Sparrow tried valiantly, but was merely sad and bleak, with lots of sex and drugs and pathos, and some fill-in singer's voice trying to recreate Piaf.

It was a downer, and I told Finlay so. He wanted the advertising to ignore that, trick the audience into expecting an uplifting, feel-good sort of film, a musical like Carousel maybe. I battled him, did my best to inject some realism and honesty, but the resulting compromise radio ads were no more successful than the film, from which Northwesterners stayed away in droves... You win some, you lose some.

Film number three was Richard Rush's long-time-in-the-making pet project The Stunt Man. He worked for a decade to get studio support and the necessary money, but by 1979 was struggling with studio bosses over their reluctance to issue his finished film. (He actually suffered a heart attack not many months later, I think, with stress no doubt a factor.) Rush picked Seattle as a test market to prove the film could succeed.

Eventually, Rush's film received Academy Award nominations and, still later, achieved major cult-film status. But anyone who saw it even at the beginning came away with strong impressions of O'Toole as a God-like director (Satanic, more like), swooping down on his camera boom, issuing edicts and tricky orders, manipulating the film-within-a-film and the people involved. Co-lead and director's-stuntman-patsy Railsback had just portrayed Charles Manson in another film (he would much later appear memorably in a couple of episodes of The X Files), and here was asked to play a Vietnam vet on the run from authorities; he acted suitably skittish and paranoid throughout.

And then there was Barbara Hershey... The woman was stunningly beautiful, at her youthful peak, with a pronounced earth-mother aura, better acting skills than one had previously known, and a startling ability to exude both charm and erotic promise; and she was obviously willing to appear naked on screen. (Railsback was naked too, but who noticed?) This was a bawdy film pushing the envelope back then, but the cut put out on video many years later was dark and poorly transferred and did not match my memory of full nudity; maybe the version I saw originally was recut for other markets, perhaps to protect an R rating?

Anyway, using the sound-edits solution again, I helped shape radio ads that spliced together pronouncements by O'Toole, music by composer Dominic Frontiere, tense moments among the actors, etc.--and came up with a couple of spots that teased and tantalized, promising suspense and intellectual trickery and, of course, the hint of sex. Finlay was pleased and told me that director Rush too was excited and hopeful.

Came opening night, the local premiere held at the Guild 45th. I shuffled around, chatted with a few folks, saw the stars from a distance (Hershey and Railsback, no O'Toole), then took a seat for the screening. As the lights dimmed, suddenly the leading lady herself sat down right next to me! She said Hi, and I mumbled something back.

I was immediately torn in two directions--I desperately wanted to gape at the gorgeous, subtly scented real woman beside me, engage her in witty conversation, but knew I should stay cool, keep my eyes on the screen 20 feet away, where the other Barbara was, er, giving her all.

Nerve-wracking? You bet. The nude scenes were many times more disconcerting with her clothed body sitting there too. But Ms. Hershey didn't shift or murmur or do anything else during the entire screening. (I was the one squirming.) And when it was over, she got up and left before the lights came up, so I had no chance to speak to her. And as the old gag goes, what do you say to a naked lady?

The Stunt Man played successfully at the Guild for an entire year and became a critical favorite, if not box office winner, elsewhere. ("Should have used my ads in the other markets too," he said modestly.)

But the one or two other minor films I consulted on after that one paled badly--in fact, I can't remember now what titles I got calls about. Dreaming up taglines for one-sheet posters just didn't have the magic and allure of sitting next to Barbara Hershey circa 1979...

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