Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Monday, October 10, 2005

Nice Place To Visit, But…

I'd like to harken back to a theme that will soon become familiar to readers of this blog: the intense, desperate and debaucherous nature of low-budget filmmaking. By any standard, Shampoo Horns was a high point in that "How low can human beings go?" film production limbo. Horns was a film written by a recent NYU film school grad from Spain named Manuel, who, like so many NYU students of the era, spent way more of his four years at the Limelight than in the library – only then he put it to use by writing a movie about it. Specifically, he'd written a feature about one wacky night in lives of some interesting characters – two college students on Ecstasy, an older artist with AIDS, the required bridge-&-tunnel philistines and some denizens of the club scene, such as the self-made celebrities responsible for Disco 2000, Michael Alig, James St. James, Freeze and Richie Rich, and club owner Peter Gatien. The really wacky part?: the denizens were playing themselves. Gatien was even letting us shoot in his clubs, with part of the deal being that his daughter, Jen, could have both a part in the film and help with continuity (Seth, the script supervisor, was happy to have her, not because she was likely to catch critical continuity errors by saying, say, "Didn't he snort the heroine with his left nostril instead of his right?" but because she was a cute blond chick). Manuel also clearly knew how to do more than one kind of dance. He had somehow persuaded some producers to finance his film as a French-Spanish co-production and hire Pedro Almodovar's then-DP, Alfredo Moya – a man able to maintain his dignity and well-developed sense of humor even while watching people vomit for the camera at 3 am - to shoot it. A third of the crew came over from Europe with Alfredo and the French producer. Then there were the club kid-friends of Manuel's who were crew, like his personal assistant, Claude, who’s main job seemed to be voguing, or cast, like his friend Jonathan, a junkie for whom he'd written the character of "Junkie Jonathan" who ODs at the end of the film and gets his body disposed of in a cardboard box (maybe they weren't such good friends). And then there was us, the scruffy, desperate, non-union crew scraped together by Andrew, the line producer, a guy who was most notable for two facts: 1) that he could somehow sleaze a group of fairly intelligent people into working themselves to death for very little and 2) that a large chunk of his right ear was missing, adding an oddly appropriate off-kilter aspect to his appearance. We never got the full story about that except that it had something to do with an unfriendly dog incident in the not-no-distant past – and I think, after getting to know Andrew, most of us would have sided with the dog.

The days were a minimum of 14 hours but often 18. We were spending an inordinate amount of that time at two nightclubs, the Limelight and the Tunnel, and there is something about practically living in a place where they show porno tapes in the bathroom stalls and where every cushion has a stain that tells a story – well, there's a reason why people only go there fucked up or to get that way as soon as possible. On the other hand, most of the rest of the time we were working nights, which anyone can tell you is a ticket for the express bus to delirium. The quiet, sparsely-inhabited world of New York in the wee hours is so completely removed from the reality most people are having, both because it's a bizarre experience in a city that supposedly never sleeps and where if you can find a deserted street after dark you generally don't want to be on it; and because you're going to bed when everyone else is getting up. I would look at people on the street or on the subway platform as I headed home to Brooklyn at 7 or 8 in the morning and think how little they really knew about their city. But mostly I just hated them for having so recently been where I wanted to be: in bed. And then, trying to get back to daylight with those normal bastards on weekends only screws up your body clock more, heightening that weird, floaty sensation of having an air mattress between you and the world that being sleep-deprived creates, and increasing your ill-advised already extreme dependence on stimulants and depressants of various sorts.

And on the subject of consciousness-altering, let me talk about the cast as being another big influence on our deterioration. Because many of the folks we were shooting were dependent on drugs to get through a day, so were we, if indirectly. If Michael's dealer, Angel, needed cab fare to come to set, it would come out of petty cash. If James showed up on set and immediately snorted his way into a K-hole, we were the ones who had to wait for him to come out of it, so it was better to make sure he did it on our schedule. And as time went on, we all began to feel like we were on drugs anyway. There were scenes in the script, such as the one in which Michael peed in a cup and somebody drank it, or an "outlaw party" of transvestites getting drunk and high in the back of a tractor trailer, that would then be followed by a confusingly-similar real-life scene, such as Michael pissing on the wall in front of the crew or, well, transvestites getting drunk and high in the back of a tractor-trailer. (Actually, in that case the fake scene and the real scene took place simultaneously). One day we filmed Peter Gatien doing the scene of a talk show where he was questioned about drug use in his clubs and on another, the cops came and shut us down so they could search the Limelight for Ecstasy. And nothing was out of bounds, particularly when it came to sexuality and sexual roles, with many of the players in drag or pre- or post-op transsexuals, or at least with giant fake breasts that, combined with their boys' legs and height, gave them bodies lingerie models would envy, and they had no compunction about flaunting them. For many of them, the club scene was an escape from the repressive homes and towns they'd grown up in, and this was their chance to try on the outfits and identities they'd been denied.

Then there was the Spanish crew. There were five of them: Alfredo, the DP; Santamaria, the key grip; Santiago, the first AC (leading to some confusion, in the beginning, because one was nicknamed "Santa" and the other "Santi"); Mark, the young second AC; and Carlos, the gaffer. Alfredo and Mark spoke perfect English. As for the others, the language of lights, flags and lenses helped us each pick up a lot: I learned my lens sizes in Spanish, Carlos learned to say "Wash you backs!" when coming through with a piece of heavy equipment, and then the rest of the cross-cultural communication came through in the universal language that they were most interested in: partying. Let's face it: Europeans, not to generalize but it's true, have more interest in quality of life than we do, never having internalized that horrible Puritan work ethic. Carlos explained it best by telling a story about how one day, when he worked his father, who was also a gaffer, he didn't feel like taking the crew's morning sandwich break. His father ordered him to take it anyway because, he said, "If you don’t, one day, they will take away your sandwich." My point is, well, they have morning sandwich breaks in Spain! And tea breaks in England, and a glass of wine or beer during lunch throughout Europe. And what do we have? Stale Oreos at craft service. And since these guys were away from their wives and families in a foreign country and earning barely more than drinking cash anyway, they certainly were not about to sink to our level and work too hard. Santi, for one, was often plastered by noon (and yet the focus on the dailies was always sharp), and they all went out pretty much every night, generally to the trendy places like Bowery Bar was in 1996, and drank and smoked like chimneys, which you could do in this town back then.

So maybe you're starting to see how, under such conditions, it is hard to maintain one's professionalism. Especially when you're only getting paid $500/week flat rate and you know you won't see most of the people you're working with again at the end of your five weeks together, it promotes a certain amount of bad behavior. The drinking, drugs and flirting among the crew started during the first couple of days, and our standards for what was acceptable rapidly declined from there. One night I remember the sound mixer and I showed up for work at 5 pm – having worked until 7 am the previous morning, of course – and, finding we didn't really have any sound to record until around midnight, promptly sat down to have a bottle of wine, knowing we'd probably sober up in time but not really caring that much either since the producer and line producer were sitting down to drink with us. The cast was getting more and more difficult to get any work out of, if they showed up at all, and so our schedule was extending, first one day, then two, then three, and we were still shooting nights, or at least partly, going on, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, into daylight, and we were all getting less and less sleep. But that could have had something to do with the fact that when a day ended at 3 am, we'd want to go out for a drink – and even when the bars in the East Village closed at 5, someone always had an apartment with booze and pot on hand. Why be a party pooper when nobody else gives a damn? It was pretty much guaranteed that if you didn't show up exhausted and hung-over the next day, you'd be at a disadvantage working with everybody else. Meanwhile, it was no coincidence that Claude called the production "Shampoo Horny." I had gotten propositioned by four different people, two French, two Spanish, three of them married and one with a pregnant wife who was actually in the movie. For my part, I was infatuated with the first AD, who I was convinced I had a real connection with but who had a girlfriend. I considered myself too honorable to go after somebody who was in a co-habitational, four-year relationship, but he was also under full frontal assault from Key Make-Up – which often positioned her either on his lap or in some other way wrapped around him – and as his rebuffs of her grew more feeble, I wondered if I should lower this one set of standards I had left.

And then, suddenly, either we ran out of money or somebody in France put their foot down because we found ourselves at the wrap party. It was in a private room at the Tunnel which eventually filled up with our unique little boiling soup pot of insanity, looking to high, drunk, laid, or any combination of the three. I watched First AD go home with Key Make-Up, then got plastered and kissed Propositioners 2 and 3 and gave my number to 4, a French PA (the one who was actually single). A week later, I cracked from the weeks of sexual tension and slept with him, and not long after that, he became roommates with First AD, whose sleeping with Key Make-Up had broken up his relationship. Of course, everybody knew, and that nixed any chance he and I had of ever going out – not that I or French PA would have cared, but it's another sad comment on American culture that women can't seem to live down their one night stands the way that men do. Still, maybe it was better that way. Now, it was really over.

At least for us. A few months later, I picked up the Village Voice and saw Angel, the drug dealer, on the cover. He'd disappeared right around the time that we'd finished shooting. Now it had come to light that he and Michael Alig had gotten into a fight over drugs, Angel had tried to choke Michael and Freeze had hit him with a hammer. They finished him off by pouring drain cleaner into his mouth and duct-taping it shut, then left him in the bathtub for a few weeks until they finally cut up his corpse and disposed of it in the Hudson River – all of this, supposedly, right around the time we were doing our last days of shooting. Michael had gone around telling people about the killing for weeks but nobody had known what to think: was he actually fucked-up enough to do it, or just to pretend he had done it to get attention? But Freeze eventually confessed, he and Michael went to Rikers, and James St. James wrote a book about it all that got made into two movies, one a feature, one a documentary, both called "Party Monster."

I rented them recently. Partly, I'll admit, it was out of tabloid curiosity about the details: did the crime really happen on one of our last shoot days? Which one? Where? We'd actually shot a scene in a bathtub – but it hadn't been that bathtub, of course, it was a set…er, right? But mainly I wanted to revisit what had happened during those weeks from an outsider's perspective – in other words, not exhausted, drunk, sex-obsessed, or hyped up on five cups of coffee. Unfortunately, from that standpoint, I found watching the movies unsatisfying. You won't find me or Santiago the drunk focus-puller or the French producer with the pregnant wife in either version of "Party Monster." Moreover, it's hard to recognize a person you knew nearly ten years ago when he's being played by Macauley Culkin. In fact, it made the whole experience even more bizarrely meta when I saw, in the documentary, just how much of Shampoo Horns had been based on real events: the peeing in the cup incident, the outlaw parties, the outfits - all of that had really happened long before Manuel had incorporated them into his script. Not to mention the eerie, if slight similarity between the disposal of Angel's body and that of Junkie Jonathan – although he goes into a dumpster, not the Hudson. Instead of giving me a better grasp of what had really happened, it just drove home how, particularly in the world of movies where you completely give yourself over to someone else's reality, the relationship between truth and fiction is very very close, so much so that you may never know exactly which was which. Even if you lived it – or perhaps more so. And not just because it was a long time ago and I was drunk.

3 Comments:

Blogger prolegal said...

Good write up carol shelby

1:48 PM

 
Blogger Da Nator said...

It just goes to show that you cannot ever trust anything that happened in club life, at least per my experience in the 80s and 90s... and I'd assume now, also.

Actually, if you'd been filming in the 80's, things would have been much clearer. Everyone was doing coke then, instead of K and E.

BTW - you should add the part to your comments area where writers have to enter a code. This will keep spammers from automatically entering links there.

4:56 PM

 
Anonymous Bill Pace said...

Another great entry! You have a flair for deftly capturing the crazy, fucked-up world of the gritty, strange world of low-budget filmmaking. Lines like "that weird, floaty sensation of having an air mattress between you and the world that being sleep-deprived creates" should be emblazoned on a monument somewhere ... maybe on the Tomb of the Unknown PA.

2:36 PM

 

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