This column space has been used once before to look at books about Hollywood and the film business. I like to share with readers some of the winners I discover that they might also enjoy. So if you've read a good book about the movies, or related subjects, and want to let me know about it, please contact me at [email protected] for what I hope is a permanent, if occasional, addition to Here in Hollywood.
The Art Of The Interview
- by Lawrence Grobel, Three Rivers Press, 448 pages, $14.95
The interview is a staple of the movie business and has been since the early days of fan magazines. Moviegoers want to know about their favorite stars, and studios have always pushed stars to reveal themselves -- if only for the sake of promoting their latest film. But is the standard celebrity interview an art? And if it is, what methods are used to create one that is compelling, revealing and memorable?
The Art Of The Interview by Lawrence Grobel is a complete and enlightening answer, and a look at the techniques the author has used to become one of the greats in the form. For thirty plus years, since his first interview with Mae West (in which he learned how the aging star swore by enemas as the secret of her success) through the Golden Age of the magazine interview during the 1970s (when his art was refined and perfected in the pages of Playboy) Lawrence Grobel has certainly become a master of his craft. What becomes clear when Grobel talks about his adventures in Tinseltown, face to face, often for hours and days, with the likes of Robert de Niro, Barbra Streisand, Al Pacino, John Huston, Oliver Stone, Halle Berry, Drew Barrymore, Robert Evans and Marlon Brando is that it's not just about asking questions.
Like any good storytelling, the essence of who each subject is, and whether or not they want to reveal that, is really the art of drawing someone out, getting newsworthy quotes that make editors glow, and finding interesting moments of candor that stick in the minds of readers. It is the art of seduction with the tape recorder rolling. But mostly it's about the stories -- and Grobel has lots of them.
- Days spent interviewing an ill and dying Henry Fonda while Fonda's wife Shirlee listened in from the other room, hoping only that talking to Fonda would lift the great actor's spirits.
- A visit with Warren Beatty in his infamous Beverly Wilshire Hotel headquarters, in which the joys of being Beatty were heard every time the phone rang, signaling another female fan.
- Mentally wrestling with Elliot Gould, when he was one of the top box office stars in the world, to get him to say anything quotable.
Along with tales of how he bagged the biggest names in the business, and became friends with Steve Martin and Al Pacino (who recognized a true raconteur when they met one) a lot of the book is devoted to the nuts and bolts of how to do it, and is an invaluable tool for anyone who is interested in pursuing this field. Getting the interview, keeping the interview on track, when and how to ask tough questions, makes interviewing an art for sure, especially when the subject is bright and quotable, as when Grobel engaged a surprisingly thoughtful Drew Barrymore. It's a piece Grobel reprints here along with running comments about how research, quick thinking and even questions suggested by friends the day of the interview, led to a lively exchange.
In addition to the stories, gossip, and intriguing glimpses at the private lives of the famous, we also hear comments from magazine editors and writers about the state of the art of the interview today. We get especially telling words from Heidi Parker (Editor of Playboy) and Andrew Essex (Editor of Details) along with funny insight from other interview artists like Kristine McKenna (Rolling Stone), Michael Fleming (Dish column in Variety), David Rensin (The Mailroom: Hollywood History from the Bottom Up) Kevin Cook (The Skybox radio) and Diane K. Shah (GQ, Details).
On top of being a great interviewer, Grobel must be the world's most fascinating dinner guest, having traveled the globe, talked to the most famous people of our time, all while he worked at his art. And too bad the era of the great interviews is dead, according to Grobel. Now with P.R. agents riding herd on what their clients can talk about, and the shortening of interviews to absurd sound bites in Maxim and Us, getting to know someone in the interview format may not be valued in the Post-Oprah age as at other times. But if anyone can revitalize the art of talk, or raise it to the level of art as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer attempted, or like Grobel himself did in book-length masterworks such as Talking With Michener, it can be uniquely educational and revealing. The Art of the Interview is a fantastic collection of stories and a look at how to be a better interviewer for anyone aspiring to join Grobel's ranks.
Breakfast with Sharks: A Screenwriter's Guide
- by Michael Lent, Three Rivers Press, 280 pages, $14.00
Another great how-to is out with a really cool cover, and an attitude to match, from screenwriter Michael Lent. Lent is a featured columnist at Creative Screenwriting Magazine, but he also has ten years in the trenches of Hollywood, writing and selling scripts to the majors, and gives us the best battlefield report that any screenwriter (newbie or pro) could ask to have in his back pocket.
It's a hard task to write scripts, rewrite, get notes from strangers and professionals, rewrite, push yourself, rewrite, get the meeting, rewrite, and keep the faith. This book covers it all with a optimistic professionalism that explains everything you'd ever want to know about the screenwriter's job, but also puts readers in the shoes of executives, producers, casting agents, actors and managers. I've never seen this done and it's such a valuable thing to be aware of what the person sitting across from you in a pitch meeting or casting call is going through in their job. By seeing what they want from the meeting, you can present yourself and your cause better because of this knowledge.
And I particularly liked some of Lent's personal stories. Once he got a break when a development executive liked his pitch and asked for a treatment by Friday for weekend read. Lent worked hard but did not turn it in until Monday, whereupon he got a chilly call from the exec telling him he was too late. Lent had blown it! But instead of blaming "the system" he took the responsibility for the goof and learned from it. He went back and wrote treatments for all his scripts so that he would never be unprepared for this kind of request again. I also like Lent's interactions with the old fogies of the business, those absorbed in the "good ol' days" and obsessed with the "kids" running the show now, to realize they aren't working hard enough at their craft. (Pass this book around at Farmer's Market!! Please!!)
By giving a first hand account of these more personal struggles, including the inner voice of doubt most introvert screenwriters deal with hourly, the aspiring writer who reads this book will not feel so alone. Lent lived through it, succeeded in writing and selling his material, and navigated the shark-filled waters of a town that does not know your name -- unless there's something in it for them -- without becoming chum. What Lent gives us then, in addition to great pitching techniques (I especially love the imagery of his "accordion pitch"), tons of valuable resource modules, and references to other books, websites and publications that can help, is a way to stay human while not getting eaten alive. This is perfect for aspiring screenwriters who don't live in Los Angeles but are thinking of moving here and giving a career in film a try. It is also a challenge to working professionals to be more so. Every writer can use this terrific new how-to.
Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies
- by David L. Robb, Prometheus Books, 384 pages, $19.
Here's the definition of "chutzpah": A man murders his parents, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan. Well, there's a little bit of chutzpah in the premise of journalist supreme David L. Robb's book, but it is nonetheless a fascinating look at how two powerful entities regard each other.
Operation Hollywood is a detailed account of how Hollywood and the Pentagon are linked in the making of movies. Producers must occasionally ask for free use of military hardware, and in exchange the Pentagon wants input. In Robb's view this is a sinister plot by the Pentagon to put pro-military messages into movies, going so far as to claim it as a violation of Hollywood's Constitutional right of free speech. There's a much simpler answer: if you don't want the input, don't ask for help. No one is stopping Hollywood from making films about any subject. So why should the military be a willing participant in unflattering portraits of itself?
But while the premise of the book is shaky, and even though the examples cited seem less sinister than instances of two monoliths of red tape (Hollywood and Washington) coming up against each other, the book itself is one the best I've read in a long time. I am a political and Hollywood junkie and Operation Hollywood provides great stories about both. The fact that there is a guy with an office in the Pentagon assigned to be the liaison between the studios and the military was news to me. Robb describes this man's DOD office, stacked with scripts and photos of him with Hollywood stars, like any other development executive's lair. Each of the branches of the military, and even the CIA, has a similar representative. And when an aircraft carrier, squad of Marines or Army boot camp is needed for a movie, some vet has to vet the script. For those who thought the studio notes were tough, the notes these suddenly empowered military men have for big shot Hollywood filmmakers are nitpicky and often hilarious. And the image of Hollywood titans like Jerry Bruckheimer, Dean Devlin and Ridley Scott capitulating to guys with oak leaf clusters on their shoulders makes for a great read. Stories of how Jurassic Park III got its Marine rescue ending, how Dean Devlin failed to get Pentagon help on Independence Day (despite his optimistic pitch that it would be a bigger recruiting poster for the Air Force than Top Gun) and how Ridley Scott succumbed to a simple script note to save his film Blackhawk Down from being retitled Huey Down are amazing. (Note: This would make a hilarious movie for HBO along the lines of Breast Men and The Pentagon Wars.)
David L. Robb is a seasoned journalist who writes for the NY Times, the LA Times and was the labor editor for both Variety and Hollywood Reporter. He's a great writer and the research here is far-reaching, from recent movies back to the post-World War II era when Hollywood and the Pentagon began to butt heads. And his premise gets its best hearing with tales of how movies made in the '50s and '60s were censored because of Defense Department pressure.
One tale, a chapter titled "Erasing Private Pedro" is particularly moving. It tells of Victor Millan, a Latino actor whose part, based on true events, was cut from the Leon Uris-scripted Battle Cry in 1955. Though Millan went on to have a very successful career, the part of Pablo would have been a breakthrough for him and for the movies, but it was cut because it showed the military in a racist light. It is here that Robb's premise feels most true, and the drama of Millan, now retired, looking at documents showing the reasons why his part was excised to the editing room floor is dramatic. Director Raoul Walsh who succumbed to Pentagon pressure did so for the most practical of reasons -- to get the film shown on military bases. But it's an unfair example for the simple reason that we are more sensitive to this breach with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
Yet it offers one of several of Robb's best arguments.
"In the movies," Robb writes, "when companies pay producers to show their products on screen, it's called 'product placement.' But when government provides incentives to producers to make the military look good in their movies, it's known by a different name. It's called 'propaganda.'"
But after reading Robb's book thoroughly, it seems more an example of another well-known axiom: "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." If Hollywood wants to save millions of dollars to substitute for the military's help, it is free to. To accept help, and then complain about the rules, is like a child who cries orphan when he became one by his own hand.