Wednesday, August 14, 2019

THE ROLLING THUNDER REVUE

When luminous imagination
     Wrapped Truth in Fiction’s airy fold,
      Then life’s blood flowed throughout creation,
      And, wavelike, o’er its limits rolled.

-- Friedrich von Schiller, “The Gods of Greece”  (1788)


    I swear I remember this:  When I was 4 years old and my parents put Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” on the record player, I would burst into tears and cry through the whole song.  Then I’d drag my little red chair over and stand on it so I could reach inside the Victrola, replay the tune and weep again.    

     My response to The Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese -- sobbing ecstatically on and off for 142 minutes -- is thus deeply rooted in my past.  But the movie’s music, performed fervently in 1975 and remixed brilliantly by Tom Fleischman four decades later, will make many sensitive viewers bawl.  We identify with a woman shown at an outdoor venue on Dylan’s tour who seems blissful when the concert ends but who, as the camera lingers, begins to cry her eyes out.  From joy and from shock.  Inexplicably and understandably at the same time.

      The paradoxical coexistence of impenetrability and clarity is a hallmark of Scorsese films.  Their complexity is the reason I need to watch each of them several times before I’m fully open to their gifts.

      Thus it wasn’t until my third streaming of the Rolling Thunder Revue that I began to grok why it packed such an emotional punch, and to treasure it even more.  Partly my take is personal and subjective:  not only am I a lifelong Bob Dylan fan, the motion picture captures a moment in pop culture that coincides with a time of profound change in my life.  It also features a concert I attended on the last night of the tour – “The Night of the Hurricane” in Madison Square Garden – the memory of which I cherish.

      But even viewed objectively, the film is stunning.  Dylan’s performances, as distilled by Scorsese, have more soulful power than in earlier portraits; the singer’s charisma rivals that of Muhammad Ali.  His voice is like a well-tuned klezmer fiddle, his dancing like a rock ‘n’ roll Astaire. 

      The band -- which features such heavyweights as Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Scarlett Rivera, Ronnie Blakeley, T-Bone Burnett, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Bob Neuwirth – would attract us even without their headliner.   And to ice the cake, Dylan brings a few geniuses along for the ride:  Allen Ginsberg.  Sam Shephard.  Patti Smith.  Oh my God, Patti Smith!

     Now I’m well aware that genius can be a vague designation, and the term is often used hyperbolically.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described it with great precision:  “Talent,” he wrote, “hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” 

     The word’s Latin root, genitus, means “bringing into being, creating, producing.”   Scorsese demonstrates this “bringing into being” with footage shot at the The Rolling Thunder Revue’s birth.  In it we see Patti Smith at Gerde’s Folk City, a small Greenwich Village club, aim for a target none of us –- not even her fellow-musicians – see.  Spinning a tale about an archer in love with his sister, she releases her own arrows wildly, risking absurdity, as poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti says, until she finally homes in on her quarry and brings a truly unique song to life.  It becomes a heartfelt chant, an explanation of what it means to be an avant-garde artist:  “I live in another dimension,” Patti boldly intones over and over.

     Rolling Thunder’s next genius – Allen Ginsberg -- also appears in the Folk City footage.  Later, when the odyssey is well underway, we see him with Dylan at Jack Kerouac’s grave, where they recite favorite passages from On the Road to one another.  We see how moved both men are, two decades after the book’s publication, by the purity and originality of Kerouac’s seminal Beat writing.  Again, genius drawn to genius!

     And, yes, I cry tears of joy.  My poet heroes unabashedly adoring my first literary idol!  Scorsese’s film draws us into intimate moments in a way that engenders profound connection and affirmation; thus we’re deeply moved.

     Sadly, we watch Ginsberg’s role on the tour reduced to five-minutes per show, as audiences seem to want more rock, less poetry.  But Dylan eloquently describes Ginsberg’s cultural impact and, no doubt, the reason he wanted the beat bard to be part of his Rolling Thunder caravan:  There are very few American poets quoted by the general public, says Dylan.  “Walt Whitman and Robert Frost come to mind, and Ginsberg is in that exclusive group.”  Driving his point home, Dylan recites the opening of “Howl:”

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
                  hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an
                 angry fix…

     Rolling Thunder’s third genius (the fourth, actually, including Dylan) is Sam Shephard.  Scorsese intercuts an interview with Shephard, in which the groundbreaking playwright discusses being asked to script a film about the tour, with footage of a character named Stefan Van Dorp, created out of whole cloth just for this Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.  In reality, it was Dylan who engaged Shepherd, a genius enlisting the aid of a genius.

     Such ersatz documentary scenes give the movie its duality, its simultaneous clarity and impenetrability.  The fiction footage doesn’t announce itself as such, visually or tonally.  So one of the delights of multiple viewings comes from “cracking the code” -- from discovering why the director scripted and staged scenes with actors for this non-fiction movie.

     And I think, after my third streaming, I unraveled the mystery.  Before I explain, allow me to digress.

     Even orthodox practitioners of cinema verite know that by choosing a particular lens, by stealing a reaction shot or a sentence from one part of the narrative and using it in another -- by editing, for goodness sake – they manipulate reality.  They present cinema truth, not scientific truth.  Scorsese simply goes a bit further than most, enhancing the film’s simultaneous clarity and its impenetrability. 

     Indeed, much of Rolling Thunder is a meditation on the nature of cinematic illusion.  The film opens with Georges Melies’ Vanishing Lady, an 80 second short in which a magician makes a woman disappear.  But its “invisible” jump cut is visible; Melies splices a take in which the woman’s dress protrudes from a blanket that’s been thrown over her to one in which, obviously, there is no dress.  Scorsese, like Orson Welles in F for Fake, tells us, without words, that his movie will sometimes deceive us, but if we watch carefully we’ll experience the delights of being in on the gag and of seeing non-literal but undeniable truth.

     Just as exploring illusion is essential to this complex rendering of a simple tale – the story of a seventies rock ‘n’ roll tour – so is examining memory.  The director and his editors, David Tedeschi and Damian Rodriguez, use stock footage to recall how commercial and pompous the US bicentennial celebration was at times.  Nixon pontificates about it from the Oval Office, as does Gerald Ford.  We see a boat parade in front of the Statue of Liberty and a vendor hawking cheap patriotic memorabilia.

      The clip selection is intentionally messy.  Nixon resigned the presidency in1974, two years before our nation’s 200th anniversary.  And the first leg of Dylan’s tour – the part Scorsese documents – ended in December 1975, seven months before the July 1976 hoopla.  Yet nearly half a century later we spin these cultural markers – Watergate, the bicentennial and Rolling Thunder -- into an oddly cohesive concoction.  That mishmash is sort of the way we remember it.

     The 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature claims not to recall the 1975 tour at all.  “It was forty years ago,” he says with a wink and a nod.  “I wasn’t even born yet.”  But in fact, four decades ago Dylan was in his thirties and now he remembers plenty.

     Even if he doesn’t, he has material that was shot for his 1977 movie, Renaldo and Clara, to refresh his memory.   There are stunning portraits of geniuses in masks and whiteface, touring the country like medieval troubadours. But there’s no footage from that time of the quotidian aspects of the tour.

     Which brings us to why Scorsese hired actors to play scripted characters and shot them in period documentary style:

     Back in 1975 Dylan wanted to make a motion picture about a bunch of poets and visionaries – beatific minstrels – masquerading as a touring rock ’n’ roll band.  But without more familiar images of rock on the road – a promoter with his eyes on profit and loss, an artsy documentary filmmaker, a groupie – the difference between Rolling Thunder and, say, a Rolling Stones tour, wasn’t effectively dramatized.

     So Scorsese created such imagery decades later and integrated it with mid-seventies cinema verite material. His first invented character, mentioned above, is Stefan Van Dorp.  Played without a hint of self-consciousness by actor Martin von Haselberg, he describes a seemingly acid-driven party at Allen Ginsberg’s during which Dylan began to copy his (Van Dorp’s) “European style” of holding a cigarette.  Scorsese bolsters the veracity of von Haselberg’s tale by intercutting it with footage of the singer/songwriter’s hands in Vulcan salute around what we used to call “cancer sticks.”  We smile, realizing, slowly, that Van Dorp’s story was made up after he saw the clip.

     And, yes, I well up a little… for the love of motion picture editing!

     Some critics have likened contrivances such as Van Dorp to those of “mockumentary” filmmakers.  But mockumentaries  --the seminal This is Spinal Tap, for instance -- are entirely fictitious and their tone is satirical.  Most of Rolling Thunder’s footage is non-fiction, and its fabricated stories, while fun, are meant to give us insight into the gulf between a touring band of inspired geniuses, on the one hand, and the daily grind of rock road shows, on the other.

      Just as Van Dorp is a contrivance, so is the tour’s promoter, brought to life by Paramount executive James Gianopulos.   Through him, we see, with some humor, the business side of touring.  And he says things about the music business that a real, circumspect promoter might not.  The late Bill Graham (who appears briefly in the film) would never have shared what the made-up impresario does: the tour’s chaos along with its hidden expenses and paper bagsful of cash, hallmarks of the music business, at least in the 1970’s.  And his chat has the ring of truth.

      Finally, Sharon Stone plays a version of herself created just for The Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.  She embodies the character as well as Stephen Colbert embodies Stephen Colbert.  As well as Dylan embodies an array of personae named Bob Dylan.

     The movie’s conceit is that Ms. Stone, a teenage model in 1975, joined the tour with her mother, simply tagging along.  We’re told that Ms. Stone was dating a member of Kiss at the time and took Dylan to watch the band play a high school dance in Queens.  Did Kiss inspire Dylan’s use of white face during Rolling Thunder?  Or was  17th century Kabuki his inspiration?  Or 16th century Commedia dell’arte?  Scorsese’s interviews with Dylan and with Sharon Stone provide contradictory answers.

      The dichotomy between non-fiction sections of film, which show Bob Dylan most at home in the company of poets and trailblazers, and its new, scripted footage, shot in the style of cinema verite and depicting Rolling Thunder as a tour like any other, suggests that Dylan’s use of face paint has a richer, deeper theatrical lineage than whatever motivated Kiss (none of whose members ever dated the real Sharon Stone).

     Again, contradiction. Complexity.  The pleasures of a Martin Scorsese picture!

     Non-scripted interviews with Dylan suggest that his makeup functioned as a mask, allowing him to create a new version of himself on stage.  This is, after all a film about Bob Dylan, who changed his name from Robert Zimmerman and arrived on the scene from a middle class university milieu claiming to have run away from home when he was eleven and lived the life of a depression-era hobo.  Featuring would-be Okie Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, son of a Brooklyn dentist.  And ranch-hand Sam Shephard, who became Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepherd.

     For Dylan, the idea that you can express yourself most truthfully when masked may go back to his earliest reading of Ezra Pound (Remember him? The guy fighting T.S. Eliot in the captain’s tower?) or even Robert Browning.  Both poets -- as shown in Pound’s collection Personae and Browning’s Dramatis Personae – spoke through “masks,” assuming the personalities of various characters (historical or imaginative) in in their dramatic monologues. 

     Dylan, by the mid-1970’s, was writing intricate first-person narrative songs like “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” as well as the confessional songs “Sarah” and “Oh Sister” from the character Bob Dylan’s point of view.  As the singer/songwriter points out in Rolling Thunder, artists are more likely to reveal their true selves from behind a mask.

     And this brings us back to Rolling Thunder’s music.  It was amazing to hear it performed live back in 1975, and to feel it with 18,000 fans.  There’s nothing like a live performance.

      But Scorsese’s documentary simulates that experience as well as any ever made, at times even surpassing it.  His own The Last Waltz eschews audience cutaways; we viewers never leave the intimate company of the performers on stage.

     In Rolling Thunder, the intimacy is intensified.  Staying in the close two-shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups originally conceived by Dylan for Renaldo and Clara, often without cutting, Scorsese creates the feeling that Dylan is singing directly to us.  Directly to me!  He’ll have “one more cup of coffee” with me!  “Spend some time in Mozambique” with me!  He’ll give me “shelter from the storm.”

     So sometimes, watching the movie, I cry tears borne of deep connection.  But there are also “Love Me Tender” tears – cathartic ones generated by the overwhelming vibrancy of music made from the heart.

     And there are, finally, tears of nostalgia, borne of fondness for times, referred to above, of big change in my life.   When I saw Dylan in whiteface in Madison Square Garden on “The Night of the Hurricane,” playing character after character as he sang, I was in the midst of undertaking my own re-invention.  I had traded my college student identity for that of filmmaker. I no longer lived in college digs in a college town.  I had an apartment with my girlfriend in New York City, with a fireplace and exposed brick (albeit on a slummy sort of block)!  I was becoming a denizen of galleries and museums and very cool bookstores and concerts.  Playing all the roles in daily life I’d always wanted to play.  Always feeling like a Manhattan sophisticate, never like Mr. Jones from the outer boroughs.

     Having, much to my parents’ disappointment at the time, chosen the life of an artist over that of a suburban lawyer, I found myself more emotionally open than I’d ever been, and able to dip more deeply into the well of my imagination.  On the path chosen for me I would have been reading tort law.  On the one chosen by me I read Cortazar.  Miller.  Genet.  I listened to Dylan.

      The Rolling Thunder Revue connected the 1975 young adult me to the confused 14-year-old kid me hiding out in my room playing the grooves off a mono pressing of “Blonde on Blonde”.  There was Dylan onstage, tangled up in blue.  Staying up all night in the Chelsea Hotel.  Knowing his song well. 

     It was more riveting -- more transcendental -- than any rock show I’d seen.  More moving than The Who performing “Tommy” at The Met!  Than Hendrix at The Singer Bowl! Yea, than Beatles at Shea!

     The Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese captures that transcendental quality with poetry and perfection.  The look and sound of its music (thanks, again, Tom Fleischman) make our ears gateways to our hearts.  And the picture’s ideas –- about self-creation and masks and illusion – have played and continue to play a huge role in my life as a filmmaker.        
      








.



Tuesday, January 29, 2019

CRYING BIG GAY TEARS

     I usually hate receiving emails from students on weekends. But I loved this one: “Just finished watching Boys on the Side,” it said.  “I didn’t know you edited that!  I’m crying big gay tears.”

     Big gay tears for a big gay film, released twenty-four years ago, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore, directed by Herbert Ross! The picture merely broke even commercially yet critics liked it and, with the same small handful of reservations I had in 1995, so do I.  All three leads are extremely affecting; Boys on the Side is a powerful tearjerker. 

     But the email reminded me more of making the movie than it did of the finished product.  AIDS was a fresh wound in the arts world and the entire cast and crew had personal connections to the film’s main theme.  I may not have realized then that it was unusual to work on a studio-financed Hollywood film from a place of deep emotional engagement.  I feel lucky, now, to have done so.

     I also feel a little old, because thinking about the picture brings to mind how difficult it was to “come out of the closet” a quarter of a century ago.  The mid-1990’s zeitgeist was very different from today's.  In many straight circles, even progressive ones, homosexuality simply wasn’t viewed as commonplace. Herbert never officially came out.  And initially Robin, Mary Louise’s character (who we’re meant to like), reacts to the very idea of lesbian relationships with the word, “Ewww!”

     Yet the director and I shared many moments of levity about sexual identity.  As he reeled off names of Broadway musicals on which he’d been “choreography doctor,” I responded (without resort to my phone, which, at that time, was rotary) by naming the theatres in which they’d run. Funny Girl?  The Winter Garden.  Golden Boy?  The Majestic.  Fiddler?  The Imperial.  So he chided me, saying that I knew more about musical theatre than any straight man had a right to.  And damn if he didn’t teach me how to dance triplets during breaks in the editing!

      In fact, a lot of what I recall about making Boys on the Side is related to song and dance.  Constructing the film’s soundtrack is as memorable as any aspect of the work.  Herbert, with Warner Bros music executive Mitchell Leib, had a great idea about songs to which characters in the movie listen: they would all be performed by women.  Our music editor, Tom Kramer, selected “Dreams” by The Cranberries for a driving sequence.  Numbers by The Pretenders, Sarah McLaughlin and Stevie Nicks came from Mitchell, who impressed the hell out of me with the fact that his mother had been Phil Spector’s piano teacher.

     A set by The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black (google them at your own risk) was deleted from the movie, Indigo Girls appeared both as characters and performers in it, and I  selected a few songs by male groups that would be re-interpreted in the finished film by women, among them Bonnie Raitt and Cheryl Crowe.  Which is how I got to meet the extraordinary record producer and musician Don Was, who arranged and supervised Ms. Raitt’s delightful cover of The Traveling Willburys’ “You Got It” for the picture.

      Indeed I have many vivid memories of Boys on the Side behind the scenes.  Lunches with production designer Ken Adam, who let me pick his brain about creating the war room for Dr. Strangelove.  Whoopi regaling me with stories of her stint as a ticket-taker at The Fillmore East.  Drew Barrymore sending me flowers after a rough ADR session when she was trying to quit smoking two packs of Marlboro reds a day by going cold turkey.

     But the event that stands out as most unusual -- perhaps in my entire career -- is screening Boys on the Side’s first assembly for Herbert Ross. 

     When we wrapped principal photography I told the director I’d need two weeks to finish putting together everything he’d shot, smooth out scene-to-scene transitions and do a rough temporary sound mix so he could watch the cut with music.  He returned to New York, I stayed in Los Angeles. 

     There, as I watched the last day’s footage, my heart sank.  All of it was murky and dim.  But thankfully, when I called DuArt Film Lab in New York and cinematographer Don Thorin, they assured me that the negative was fine -- that only the print was frighteningly dark.  The lab would correct the dailies, screen them for Herbert and ship them to me.

     Relieved, I phoned the director to tell him about the misprint and the change in his schedule.  Grumbling, he agreed there was no point in viewing bad material, and we arranged a screening for the next day.

     So I was surprised not to hear from him twenty-four hours later, and even more so when I called DuArt and learned he hadn’t been there.  But I was glad, too.  “He must have cheered up,” I thought, "and headed off for a well-deserved and much-needed vacation."

     I proceeded to edit.  Small adjustments were made as I put scenes that had been shot out of sequence in order.  I dressed my work up for presentation with temporary sound effects and music, and began to get a sense of how things would play when Herbert and I watched the cut on the big screen. 

     My trip to New York was approaching fast.  The film’s travel coordinator booked flights and reserved a hotel room.  My assistant editors lined up our temp mix and prepared the work print for shipping and screening.  Then the phone rang.  “It’s Lee Radziwill for you,” I was told.

      Now that was weird.  Of course, I’d met Lee, Herbert’s wife (and Jackie Onassis’s sister), before.  But she wasn't involved in film production at all, so it didn’t make sense that I would hear about the screening from her.  Mr. Ross, she said, wanted me to bring a VHS copy of the film instead of the 35mm. work print.  I was confused; viewing a clean print off the original negative in a state-of-the-art screening room was infinitely preferable to looking at VHS tape on a monitor.  Why hadn’t Herbert called?

      A few hours later, the mystery was solved.  Beth, the director’s personal assistant, phoned and quipped, “I’ll bet you want to know where the screening will take place.”  I said I did.  “OK,” she responded.  “On Friday at 2pm, you’ll bring the videocassette to Lenox Hill Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit.”

     That’s right.  Shortly after I told him about the misprinted dailies, Herbert Ross had a heart attack.  Years of smoking and drinking, and a hair-trigger temper had taken their toll.  But it was all hush-hush.  If word got out that the director was “incapacitated,” Warner Bros. could legally take the picture away from him.  And with a film as personal as Boys on the Side, the results might have been disastrous.  Which is why outside of a small group of people close to Herbert, no one’s known about the infarction until now.

     I recalled it when I got my student’s email. And looking back after all these years, as I said, screening my first cut of Boys on the Side in a coronary care unit might be the strangest experience I’ve had in post-production.  Herbert in bed, pale, wearing a hospital gown, hooked up to an IV, tubes in his nose, monitors beeping away.  What if he doesn’t like the cut?

     That really did cross my mind.  I mean, watching the first assembly of any movie is unpleasant.  That’s just a given.  In scene after scene, text, performances, set design, costumes and lighting all convey the same thing, transforming moments that were powerful in the script or dailies into exercises in redundancy. It’s invariable and unavoidable, as sound maestro Randy Thom points out in “Designing Film for Sound;” screenwriters, actors and filmmakers all give 100% and you don’t want less.  But the upshot is that you have to carve away at what’s been made expendable by the hard work of one artist or another.  This sculpting is essential to editing.  Unbearable first assemblies are so common, in fact, that Billy Wilder famously advised, “Never fall in love with your rushes and never slash your wrists when you see the first cut.”

     So, yes, I was nervous.  Hair-trigger temper.  Heart attack.  First cut.  VHS. 

     But Herbert was a seasoned director, to say the least.  Having helmed nearly thirty pictures -- including Funny Lady; Play it Again, Sam; The Sunshine Boys; The Turning Point; Pennies from Heaven; The Goodbye Girl; Footloose and Steel Magnolias -- and having worked with by such master cutters as Paul Hirsch and the late Richie Marks, he knew what to expect and what not to expect from a first assembly.

      So we watched my initial pass at Boys on the Side with reasonable expectations.  As it unfolded, its hospital scenes and its story about love and mortality made us feel as though we were “method viewing.”  And when the film ended, with Whoopi singing a heart-rending version of “You Got It,” I looked over and the director was crying.  So was I.  Good tears.  Cathartic tears.

     Herbert Ross recovered and we went to work in an editing suite in Los Angeles, crafting a film that remains moving and meaningful.  We mixed our sound in the Bay Area and, while he indulged in the occasional after-work martini, Herbert stayed away from steak dinners and cigarettes.  When we finished, the director took some time off, then began to develop Out to Sea, a vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. 

     I was hoping to edit that for him right away.  But Herbert was meticulous about working with writers to get the screenplay ready to shoot, and many months passed.  We’d meet occasionally and once, over lunch, he told me he’d run into an anxious Mr. Matthau.  The actor, his deadpan expression tuned perfectly, growled at the director: “Herbie, hurry up with the script already!  I’m getting too old to play old.”

     Sadly, Herbert David Ross passed away before he could make Out to Sea, almost eighteen years ago.  He’d have turned 92 this coming May.  I miss him.  But I think he’d have been happy to know that Boys on the Side is enjoying a second life on Netflix.  And that it will be shown one of these weeks soon at University of North Carolina School of the Arts as part of an ongoing program called “Out at the Movies.”   

         

             

         



    


Friday, July 20, 2018

STRIKE!

     As I write, an impending strike threatens to shut down the film and television industries completely. The contract between the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), my union for the past several decades, and the Alliance Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expires on July 31st.  And the two sides aren’t even close to an agreement.

     In addition to editors like myself, IATSE  (known to members as the IA) represents cinematographers, production designers and art directors, costume designers, hair and makeup artists, lighting experts and sound technicians.  AMPTP speaks for the owners and managers of television networks and motion picture studios, along with the heads of streaming entities and executives running smaller production companies.  Those of us who make movies and TV shows, represented by our union, in other words, are at odds with those who finance and/or manage our work.

      The most contentious issues – filmmakers’ demand that the workday not be so long that our health and safety are endangered and our demand that we get the same residuals from streaming services as actors, writers and directors in order to keep our pension and health insurance fund solvent – seem straightforward enough.  But in these times, when union membership is low, when monopolistic corporations behave as though they hold all the cards and when new media have disrupted normal avenues of distribution and broadcasting, nothing is simple.

      In the IA’s 124 years of existence its goals and achievements have, on the contrary, been relatively uncomplicated:  wages commensurate with the rarity of members’ skills, employer contributions to a pension fund substantial enough for members to retire comfortably, affordable high quality health coverage also paid for by employers, overtime pay for overtime work, and provisions for reasonable meal breaks and time off from workday to workday.  Negotiations between the union and studios have sometimes been contentious, of course; there have occasionally been strikes. 

     But in the past half-century labor-management battles never posed an existential threat to the union.  The entities that financed movie production recognized that a unionized workforce was good for them.  Filmmakers’ reasonable compensation package made competition for jobs intense, so producers have always gotten the highest quality work from union crews. 

     My son, Adam Miller, posited early in his editing career that the only way to make a good low budget film is with a big budget crew, because well-paid filmmakers can’t be inefficient.  Wasting time is too costly.  So wise financiers happily pay more - and save money in the long run - by hiring expert and efficient union crews that deliver high quality work, on schedule.

     I was unaware of the union when I fell in love with cinema and still romanticized the starving artist as much as any college student.  But after graduation, starvation was a tough sell.  My very middle class parents had just forked over much more tuition than they could afford.   Becoming aware of union wages (and above scale rates), however, enabled me to tell mom and dad that just like lawyers and doctors, filmmakers are often paid well.  I could work my way up in a field about which I’d become passionate, and the compensation would be good.  It was the union, of course, that made such a claim possible.

      When I joined the New York Editors Guild (IA Local 771) at the start of my career, hourly rates, insurance benefits, guaranteed time away from the workplace at the end of each day, and employer contributions to our pension fund were at an all time high.  But from the early ‘80’s to the present, organized labor has been under attack, so it’s gotten harder and harder for IATSE to negotiate agreements as good as those of the pre-Reagan years. 

     I’m not saying the union was perfect back then.  East and west coast locals hadn’t yet merged and were often at odds.  It was hard to become a member if you didn’t have family already in the IA.  Those of us who struggled to get on union shows even suspected a degree of corruption in addition to the obvious nepotism.  Finally, contracts between the studios and the various film crafts expired at different times, so a picture could be edited even if the cinematographers struck or designed and shot even if the editors were out; we were not a united front.
     But today all of the film crafts’ agreements with the AMPTP terminate on the same date, July 31st.  And this gives the IA true power to negotiate a good deal for us, because if there’s a strike we all go out and the networks are left without programming to start the television season, and movie studios won’t have finished films for “awards season.”

     Knowing we have this strength, it seems like a no-brainer to strike if the AMPTP won’t meet our demands on life and death issues.

     Let’s talk first about the length of the workday.  People outside the movie industry may not be aware that a 12-hour workday is considered normal in Hollywood; we often toil for as many hours in one week as non-filmmakers do in a week and a half.  Sometimes it’s much worse.

     Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the current contract requires only 8 hours between the end of one workday and the start of another.  In other words, if Tuesday’s shoot wraps at midnight there’s no financial penalty for requiring the production crew to be back on set at 8am.  Add commuting time and the need to unwind for a few minutes and what we wind up with is sleep-deprived filmmakers who do nothing but work. This not only wreaks havoc on our family lives, it becomes extremely dangerous.     

     The late cinematographer Haskell Wexler made these dangerous work conditions a cause célèbre after camera assistant Brent Hershman was killed in a car wreck in 1997, falling asleep while driving home from a job at the end of a 19-hour workday (which was preceded by four 15-hour days).  What the IA wants codified in the new contract, as I understand it, is 12 hours between wrap and call, and a maximum 14-hour workday.  Not only does that seem reasonable to anyone outside the motion picture industry, it seems absolutely vital to all of us in it.  The AMPTP seems to disagree.

     The issue of employer contributions to IATSE’s pension and welfare fund is more complicated.  Our pension plan is funded largely by employer contributions for every hour we work.  But as studios have made fewer and fewer films in the past decade, that revenue has diminished. 

     There is an additional source of pension plan funding:  residual payments from distribution in secondary markets – feature films on DVD and Blu-ray or sold to television networks and airlines, for example.  But these traditional forms of revenue are drying up as viewers today stream most content.  And right now, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu don’t pay residuals to the IA pension and welfare fund. 

     Consequently, the solvency of the plan itself is nearing “critical status.”  As of January 1, 2017, it was only 67.4% funded, and under federal law, a pension plan is considered to be in “critical” condition if funding falls below 65%.
    
     No one questions the importance of adequate pension payouts or affordable high quality medical coverage.  But when it comes down to financing pensions and insurance for those of us who work behind the scenes, the AMPTP is pleading poverty.

     Which is crazy!  While the studios complain that profits and attendance are at an all-time low for theatrical films and that TV ratings are way down, projected 2022 income for the film and TV industries, including power players Netflix and Amazon, is  $119.2 billion, up from $64 billion in 2017.   Clearly, then, the industry is making record profits.

     Simply put, my union sisters and brothers and I deserve to share fairly in the revenue. The AMPTP has already granted the Writers, Actors and Directors Guilds  “new media” (streaming service) residuals for their health and pension plans.  We want the same square deal.
  
     Because of streaming, of non-existent anti-trust law enforcement and of windfalls generated by recent corporate tax cuts, media corporations are so flush they’re considering construction of a $100 million tram to the Hollywood sign. How about investing that money in the those of us behind the camera who make the movies and TV shows that generate their mega-profits?  “Instead of a tram,” says a Local 600 spokesperson says, “let’s hike up instead and fund our pension!”

     Of course, I hope a strike can be averted.  Organized work stoppages wreak havoc with the very kind of economic security for which IATSE has struggled.  But at the moment the AMPTP seems intransigent on what, as I said above, are truly existential issues.  If we stay united and recognize our own bargaining power, we can make them do the right thing!