Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Filmmaker Victoria Negri on working with Robert Vaughn

Victoria Negri and Robert Vaughn on the set of Gold Star (2016) - Photo by Ben Jarosch

I'm pleased to present you with a guest post from filmmaker Victoria Negri who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the new independent movie Gold Star (2016). Based on a true story, Gold Star follows Vicki as she deals with the complications that arise from her 90 year old father's recent stroke. Her father is played by Robert Vaughn and this is his final film. I had the privilege of watching this film recently and I marveled at the fine storytelling, Vaughn's amazing performance and how much the story reminded me of my own father's illness. I'll have a full review of the film on the blog soon. In the meantime enjoy this guest post.

Robert Vaughn in Gold Star (2016)

"Today, Robert Vaughn would have been 84 years old. I initially wrote this blog post about working with Robert the night before his passing, and have since edited it. Everything about working with him is surreal now that he’s gone. Trying to sum up what working with him means to me personally and my career overall is challenging.

My debut feature film, Gold Star, which I also star in and produced, is loosely inspired by my experiences caring for my father during his last year alive, after he suffered a stroke that left him speechless and mostly paralyzed. It’s an unconventional father/daughter story, one that I hope honestly portrays ideas surrounding the ways we process the inevitability of aging and death.

I initially set about to cast an unknown actor in the role of my dad. I admired films with non-actors, and wanted someone who felt “real,” perhaps someone who had recovered from a stroke in real life and could realistically portray it in a movie. After meeting with several non-actors, I abandoned the idea, fearing hiring someone almost 90 years old without experience would prove to be too difficult. I hired casting director Judy Bowman in New York to help me in my quest to cast the role of Carmine, my father in the film. Robert Vaughn, Oscar nominee, Emmy winner and veteran of more than sixty years in the business, was at the top of our list.

It was a fairly straightforward process. We reached out to him, sent him the script, made an offer through his manager, and he accepted.

I met Robert a month-and-a-half before we began production. I drove to his house in Connecticut, through wooded back roads, up steep hills, past beautiful homes. His residence was at the end of a long street. As I walked up the front path, I did a few relaxation breathing techniques I learned in yoga and Tai Chi classes, trying to prepare myself, and was quickly interrupted by a booming, old school Hollywood kind of voice, “Why hello, Victoria.” I was startled. Robert was on his front steps already waiting for me. I nervously handed him a box of cookies from my favorite bakery that I bought for him and his wife, and followed him inside.

I sat across from him in his beautiful living room, his Emmy Award shining not far from me on his mantel. Surrounding us were photos he took with The Beatles, his frequent co-star Steve McQueen and others, a beautiful wooden desk and a large, black grand piano once performed on by Judy Garland.

We chatted about his career and his interest in the script. I bluntly asked him why he said yes. What about the film stood out, I wondered. Surely he gets many offers.

Robert Vaughn in Gold Star (2016)

His answer surprised me. He said he’d never had the challenge of playing someone recovering from a stroke and facing such a severe physical handicap (with no lines of dialogue on top of it), and that he wanted to see if he could do it. We spoke a lot about his love for Hamlet and Shakespeare and his first acting role when he was very young in Three Billy Goats Gruff. I asked him what kind of acting techniques he preferred. He told me over the years, he took what worked for him and developed it into his own sort of technique that could not be pinned down to any specific method.

Robert was genuinely curious about my process of writing, why certain things were in the script. He asked fantastic questions about certain scenes, and listened carefully. I told him a lot about my father and specifics on how the stroke affected him. The fundamental question he wanted to know to help him play the character was, “What kind of a man was your father? What was his a mantra he had or thing he lived by?” And I remember my reply was, “Mind over matter.”

He noticed me staring at the photos and gave me a tour of them. I’ll never forget him proudly pointing at a photo of The Beatles, saying, “They asked to meet me.” Before I left, he handed me his autobiography, signed it and told me to read it. I was home this past weekend in Connecticut for his funeral and a screening of the film (both on the same day, which was extremely emotional), and I looked at the inside of the book. Robert signed the book, “Victoria, best of luck on your great adventure.” Making and releasing this film has been a five-year adventure so far, and thanks to Robert, it has been great.

Robert Vaughn and Catherine Curtin in Gold Star (2016)

On the train ride back to New York City after our initial meeting, I poured through his autobiography, quickly becoming more and more intimidated and in awe of the man I’d be working with. He had a doctorate, writing his thesis on the blacklist. He was good friends with the Kennedy family, he was well-read and passionate about Shakespeare, not to mention a fantastic writer of his own. He had hilarious anecdotes about working with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, and talked a bit about his relationship with Natalie Wood. If you haven’t read his book “A Fortunate Life,” make it a priority.

Working with Robert on set was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. He was selfless. He put his faith entirely in me, which built my confidence up. Whatever I said, he trusted. He told some crew members, “Who knows her story better than her?” There were times I’d let the camera roll in close-up on him, and we would improv back and forth. Because he has no lines in the film, I’d tell him what he should physically get across, see what he did with his face and body, and let it play out. In one particular scene, he joked with me afterwards saying, “You’ve got enough for one film from that entire take.”

My film was by no means a multi-million dollar production. We shot most of Robert’s scenes in my childhood home, and spent two days on location at Gaylord Rehab Facility in Wallingford, Connecticut. Robert spoke with my sister, who was on set a few days, in between takes, asking her questions about my family, further probing into his character. I believe he was always watching, taking notes. I saw him looking at photos and studying paintings my father made. He was an intelligent actor with a true old-school work ethic. He showed up on time, trusted his director completely, played within the world I set up for him, and filled each take with a full, multi-layered character.

Robert Vaughn and Catherine Curtin in Gold Star (2016)

I am lucky to have worked with him. In completely trusting me on set, despite the fact that I was a complete unknown, he empowered me with confidence. His trust was the best kind of mentorship a first time writer-director like me could have asked for.

Last week, we screened Gold Star at Gaylord for National Caregivers Month. The emotions I felt watching Robert’s performance on screen for the first time since his passing were complicated. I’m proud and honored to have his last performance on film be in my movie. Watching the film now, it adds another new layer of meaning. The film was initially meant to process what it was like losing my father, but now, as I watch it, I’m processing losing Robert as well.

I am more determined now than ever for Gold Star to get out into the world, so that Robert’s last performance can be seen by as wide of an audience as possible, to honor his remarkable legacy as a true movie star."

Stay tuned about future festival screenings and follow us for news
Official Site: goldstar-film.com
Facebook: Facebook.com/GoldStarFilm
Twitter: @GoldStarFilm

- Victoria Negri

The cast and crew of Gold Star (2016) photo by Ben Jarsoch

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

My Memories of Norman Lloyd at #TCMFF

Ben Mankiewicz and Norman Lloyd at the Live at the TCM Classic Film Festival screening (Press photo)

Today is Norman Lloyd's 102nd birthday. To celebrate TCM willl be airing the 2015 Norman Lloyd Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival. I was in the studio audience for that legendary interview. It was an experience I'll never forget and I'm excited for everyone else to see it. To commemorate his birthday and the airing of the special I'll be sharing my memories of seeing Lloyd from three different TCM Classic Film Festivals.

Back in 2013 when I was preparing for my very first TCMFF, Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings had pointed out that 98 year old Norman Lloyd would be in attendance at a screening of The Lady Vanishes (1938) and that it was not to be missed. Taking her suggestion I quickly altered my TCMFF schedule. And so began a series of amazing encounters with Norman Lloyd.

The first was at the 2013 TCMFF but before the film screening. Aurora (Citizen Screen), Laura and I were at Club TCM sitting in the way back by the main entrance while attendees were participating in the So You Think You Know the Movies? trivia game. And guess who walks through the door? None other than the man himself, Norman Lloyd. Aurora pointed him out to Laura and I and we all stared in wonder. No one else had spotted him because he had slipped in as a surprise guest and everyone's attention was on the main stage. Aurora went right up to him and shook his hand. That was one of a series of "Aurora moments" named after her special encounters which resulted from her determination and some luck. She inspired me to make my own moments at future festivals. (More on the experience here.)

Norman Lloyd at Club TCM
A couple of days later I attended the special screening of The Lady Vanishes (1938). Leonard Maltin was on hand to interview Norman Lloyd about Alfred Hitchcock and his work. Lloyd was as fit as a fiddle at 98 with a mind as sharp as a tack. The interview was fascinating. He regaled us with stories and charmed our socks off. You can watch the full interview below and check out my transcript and notes on the experience here.

Norman Lloyd getting a standing ovation at TCMFF 2013

Norman Lloyd at TCMFF 2013

Little did I know that these two experiences were only beginning. Even more amazing encounters were to come.

Fast forward to the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival and Norman Lloyd returned as a festival guest. I had such a fabulous time seeing him in 2013 that I made a point to see him again.

That year I decided to sit in the bleachers and watch the stars walk down the red carpet on opening night. Norman Lloyd was one of those guests. Here he is on the red carpet with Ben Mankiewicz and Sean Cameron greeting the fans in the bleachers.

Norman Lloyd bows to the fans in the bleachers. 2015 TCMFF

Next up was a screening of Reign of Terror (1949) hosted Eddie Muller of the Noir Foundation with special guest Norman Lloyd who plays Tallien in the film. 

I almost didn't make it to this screening. I got there kind of late having just come from Christopher Plummer's hand and footprint ceremony. Lucky for me I got one of the last seats. Unfortunately it was in the front row at the far right which proved to be an awkward spot for viewing the film. However it was the perfect spot to see Norman Lloyd come down the stairs for the interview after the screening. 

Eddie Muller and Norman Lloyd
At 100 Norman Lloyd was STILL as sharp as a tack. At one point in the conversation he went off topic and started to ramble but remembered to come back to the original question, something I can't even do and I'm several decades younger. You can read my post about the interview here.

After the interview Lloyd at to walk back up those stairs and I had the perfect vantage point. He was going to walk right past me again and this time I was determined to talk to him. I'm a shy person and can get tongue-tied very quickly. But I can always say "thank you". It's simple, it's direct and I can't mess it up. And when Lloyd walked up to the stairs I gave him a big smile and said "thank you." He looked and said "thank YOU". I was on cloud nine. I can't believe that I spoke to the great Norman Lloyd. And that wouldn't be the only time either. More on that to come.

Set-up for the Live at the TCM Classic Film Festival with Norman Lloyd

Press photo of Norman Lloyd greeting the audience at TCMFF

At that point I couldn't get enough Norman Lloyd so it was imperative that I attend the Live at the TCM Classic Film Festival interview hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and featuring Lloyd. I blocked out an entire morning to get in line and attend the two hour event (it'll be edited down to one hour for television). 

Press photo of Ben Mankiewicz and Norman Lloyd at TCMFF

Words cannot express how wonderful this experience was to me. I ran the gamut of emotions: I laughed, I cheered, I cried. I loved listening to Lloyd's stories about the Great Depression, working with heavyweights like Hitchcock, Chaplin and Welles, his work on film and TV, his beloved wife Peggy who past away a few years ago, his most recent film Trainwreck (2015) and countless other stories. My favorite moment was when Mankiewicz asked Lloyd about seeing Babe Ruth at Yankee stadium. Lloyd stood up, animated and regaled us with the story.  I sincerely hope that moment made the final cut. After a year and a half I'm curious to see video of this day, to refresh my memory on things I forgot and to relive all those emotions. Lloyd charmed us all (he even flirted with the make-up artist) and I hope he'll charm you all too.

Can you see me? I'm to the left of Norman Lloyd's head peeking out from above his chair! (Press Photo)

My Norman Lloyd story doesn't end there. I got one last glorious experience with him at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival and it was totally unexpected. 

When I was preparing for my fourth festival, I was determined to fulfill my dream and interview stars on the red carpet. I got the full guest list for opening night and I studied all the names closely. Even though Norman Lloyd wasn't technically a special guest at the festival, he was going to walk the red carpet and attend the opening night party. This was my chance to talk to him again! I was at the end of the interview line and by the time he came down my way he was no longer doing interviews. However I knew I had to work fast to make an Aurora moment happen. I seized the opportunity to have some sort of  interaction with him.

I called out to him proclaiming "WE LOVE YOU NORMAN LLOYD!". He stopped looked around trying to find who was calling out to him. I repeated "WE LOVE YOU NORMAN LLOYD!" He looked over at me and said "beautiful!"

Norman Lloyd looking over at me. 2016 TCMFF red carpet.

Then I replied, "no YOU'RE beautiful!" And I blew him a kiss.

Norman Lloyd blowing me a kiss. 2016 TCMFF red carpet.

And you'll never believe it but he blew me a kiss back! I almost fainted. What an experience. I flirted with Norman Lloyd on the red carpet! I didn't get video of the encounter but I have these three photos, eye witness accounts and my own memory of the event. 

Can you find me in this picture? I'm in the pink dress in between Norman Lloyd and TCM's Sean Cameron
(Press photo via Zimbio) 

I want to wish Norman Lloyd a very happy 102nd birthday. I want to thank him for all those wonderful moments at the TCM Classic Film Festival as well as his body of work in film and television which has entertained many of us for decades. Happy birthday!

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Life of Raymond Chandler

A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler
by Tom Williams
Chicago Review Press
9781613736784 - 384 pages
January 2012

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

Was Raymond Chandler, the author who invented detective Phillip Marlowe, as interesting as his creation? This question was on my mind when I began reading A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.

Born in Chicago on July 23rd, 1888 to Maurice and Florence Chandler, young Raymond had a troubled childhood. His father was an alcoholic, setting the stage for Chandler’s own struggles with alcoholism, and he abandoned the family early on. Left to their own devices, Florence and Raymond moved from Chicago and eventually settled in England where Chandler received a good education at Dulwich. Unfortunately he could not secure the funds to go to college but this did not stop him in his pursuit of a literary career. At first he made an earnest attempt at being a poet but failed miserably. After living in France, he returned to London to fetch his mother and traveled across the pond then across the continent to Los Angeles. Williams notes, “he left London as a failed British writer and arrived in America as a new man.”

Although Chandler always thought of himself as a Brit, it was his life in California that set things in motion for this new stage of his life and career. But those early days in Los Angeles were not devoted to writing. He fought in WWI by way of Canada because he could not enlist through either the US or England. When he came back from the war he devoted himself to his mother Florence. He met the woman who would be the love of his life, Cissy. Unfortunately his mother disapproved of the union and Chandler waited until Florence died before marrying Cissy. Chandler was 35 and Cissy was 53 pretending to be 43. The age difference would prove to be a thorn in Raymond’s side for the length of their marriage. His relationships with Florence, Cissy and other women in his life are explored in detail in the book. The women had the greatest influence on his ideals, the characters in his stories and his motivations in life. The author also touches upon Chandler’s possible homosexuality.

His literary career was put on the back burner in the years that followed. He began drinking and became an alcoholic in the 1920s. It was until Chandler lost his cushy job at Dabney Oil Syndicate that he picked up writing again. He took a correspondence course on fiction and started writing pulp stories for the magazine Black Mask. These proved to be popular and while Chandler didn’t see himself as a mystery writer he enjoyed the work.

Chandler's pulp stories improved as he developed and honed his skills. Author Tom Williams defines the pulp short genre as the following:
“The stories tended to revolve around a central male character who, more often than not, operated alone. Toughness was an essential virtue, as was a strict moral code that divided the world into good and bad, right and wrong. And the stories were characterized by simple, muscular, almost brutal prose.” 
 Chandler had a strict moral code “right and wrong were sharply defined in his world.” This bled into his writing and would often determine the fate of different characters in his stories. His stories explored “feelings of paranoia and disillusionment” and had a strong sense of place. This can be seen in his novels like The Big Sleep where Los Angeles and Hollywood are front and center in the narrative. Williams demonstrates themes in Chandler’s work with passages of text and plot points, character studies and how events and circumstances in Los Angeles shaped Chandler’s story.

“Along with The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, [The Big Sleep] has come to represent the high peak of the hard-boiled genre.” – Tom Williams

Moving beyond short stories, Chandler began to write novels. His first was The Big Sleep, published by Knopf and establishing detective Phillip Marlowe as a noir figure. Williams says, “[Phillip Marlowe] was a step forward from the characters of the pulp stories – a fully realized man rather than a vehicle for action.” What differentiated Chandler works from his peers James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett was the focus on character and setting and less on mystery and plot. Also Chandler’s narrative was in the first person which would later prove to be a strength for noir. Williams calls these elements “the key to his success.” Chandler wrote several novels, most of them featuring detective Marlowe. The biography goes into detail about The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye and others. Most of his novels were initially flops. His first publisher Knopf neglected to market them well, didn’t see Chandler’s true potential. In the end Chandler’s stories proved to have legs in Hollywood and beyond.

Raymond Chandler's cameo in the film Double Indemnity

“All writing that has any life in it is done with the solar plexus. It is hard work in the sense that it may leave you tired, even exhausted.” – Raymond Chandler 

I enjoyed reading about Raymond Chandler’s work as a novelist, short story writer and screenwriter especially. Hollywood came knocking and Chandler got a gig as a screenwriter at Paramount. His first project was working with Billy Wilder on adapting Cain’s Double Indemnity for the big screen. But Chandler got a rough start in Hollywood. He couldn’t see eye-to-eye with anyone and when Double Indemnity was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar he didn’t even show up to the ceremony. Yet is work continued as he adapted The Blue Dahlia, And Now Tomorrow, The Unseen and other movies. He briefly worked on the adaptation of his own novel The Lady in the Lake. Always an admirer of Hitchcock, he was thrilled to work with him on adapting Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train but the two butted heads and Chandler was kicked off the project. Chandler might not have appreciated the modest success of his novels and film adaptations at the time because he could not forsee the fame and recognition that was to come.

Raymond Chandler portrait from LIFE magazine

The depth of research found in this book is often mind-blowing. I love that careful attention to detail. I read many biographies and can always tell when the author took the time and effort to leave no stone unturned in their quest for information. Some readers find the transparency of research in a biography to remove them from the narrative of the story. You get that sense a little bit at the beginning of the book but the narrative voice eventually finds its stride. This book is also the perfect example of how you can have a biography without footnotes. Nothing frustrates me more than a book with too many footnotes, it disrupts the flow of reading and often times isn’t necessary. Williams expertly weaves all the information into the narrative.

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe
 So to answer my original question, was Chandler as interesting as Marlowe? While Chandler imbued the Marlowe character with many of his own traits, Chandler as a central figure in this biography is not as interesting as his creation. Frankly he was a fuddy duddy who had a strange viewpoint on the opposite sex and proved to be difficult in both professional and personal relationships. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want to keep the allure of a mysterious Chandler or if you’re willing to take a closer look at the man behind Marlowe.

Thoroughly researched, this comprehensive biography dives deep into the life of one of the most notable storytellers of the 20th Century. It’s highly recommended to any readers interested in Raymond Chandler, the writing process and the birth of noir.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of this book for review!

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