Wednesday, January 10, 2018

HOLDING COURT AT CASA VEGA

ALL THE LOSERS IN HOLLYWOOD...

One night, sitting in Residuals Bar in Studio City (where the DRAGONHEART script was conceived) and drinking a Guiness, I was telling one of the stories that usually end up on this blog - a story about some poor misguided person in the film biz, and one of my friends said: “Where do you find these people?” I replied, “I bet I know all the losers in Hollywood”.... and they said that should be the title of my autobiography (or this blog). But instead, this blog ened up being called SEX IN A SUBMARINE due to a crazy script note I got from HBO on CRASH DIVE, and ALL THE LOSERS IN HOLLYWOOD was a title without a story... until now.

When looking for regular features for the blog for 2018, I thought it would be fun to tell a bunch of those stories of the oddballs I’ve met in the almost 30 years I’ve been in this business. I’m changing all of the names to protect the very very guilty (and avoid meeting lawyers) but the stories you are about to read are true... well, mostly true.

HOLDING COURT AT CASA VEGA


Built in 1956, the Casa Vega restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks has been a celebrity haunt since they opened the doors. Cary Grant was a regular, as were Marlon Brando and Michael Jackson and Jane Fonda and Dyan Cannon... these days Gwent Sefani and Al Pacino and Tom Hanks and the Spielbergs and the Kardashians and even George Clooney (when he’s in town) are part of the dinner crowd. The place is a fake adobe villa with a terra cotta roof on the main drag of the San Fernando Valley... just down the street from where I live. The drinks aren’t cheap, but for a while when I was getting lots of stuff on screen (and the production bonuses that come with that) I’d often meet friends there for a drink or two. A couple of times I even had dinner, but never spotted any celebrities, though one night they told me that Clooney was buying drinks for the house the night before. Just my luck!

Often at a table in the bar was a producer who I will call Martin, though his real name is... oh, wait, that could get me in trouble. You could tell Martin was successful because he didn’t care what the hell you thought of him. He was dressed down, as if he might be on his way to the bowling alley down the street, but wore a Rolex on his wrist... and was rumored to drive a blue Ferrari Testarossa - and I actually saw him pull into valet parking in that car once. So I was a corroborating witness on that part of his legend. I didn’t even know they made them in blue - I thought they were all bright red.

Martin would hold court at his booth, and wanna-be actors and actresses and directors and writers would often fight for a seat. I was usually with my friends, but a couple of times when I was there alone I just sat at the bar. Gotta be cool, right? Can’t look desperate. I often wonder if that theory has lost me jobs in the past? I know people who fawn over people and end up being thrown a bone now and then - and use that to move up in the business. A director I know started out by becoming everyone’s “number one fan” and then asked everyone he knew who was important if they’d be in his short films - and ended up with stars and directors and others in short films that he’d show to the next level of people in the business and a producer ended up hiring him to direct a real movie, just based on the names in his short films. I don’t do that stuff... but where would I be if I did? Could I be driving a blue Ferrari like Martin?

But playing it cool kind of worked - a few times I got invited to Martin’s booth and tried to figure out just what films he had produced. This was in those dark ages before IMDB when you had to read the trades or watch all of the credits to know who was involved in a film. So I was always looking for clues when I was invite over to his booth. Once Martin mentioned that he was working with Swayze on his new film, so I combed the trades for what film Patrick Swayze was currently working on. Another time he said he was negotiating with Stallone for the lead in his new film. He’d name drop and I’d search the trades for the project. The problem was, the trades didn’t report on everything. Hollywood Reporter had a weekly list of films in production, pre-production, and post production - but they were bare-bones listings and the ones with Stallone or Swayze or whoever else he’s mentioned starring didn’t list all of the producer credits. I’m not going to tell you how much time I spent looking for clues to his films... because then you wouldn’t think I was cool anymore.

He’d often name drop movie stars and big time directors and tell stories about them that only an insider could ever know. He’d talk about all of the red carpet movie premieres he went to - and sometimes would describe some actresses dress... and when they showed the premiere on Entertainment Tonight, that’s the exact dress she was wearing! So even though I could never find the Stallone project that he was working on, I knew that there was one. He’d tell stories about stars and name directors and other producers that not only sounded true, sometimes the same stories would pop up here and there in the press... so they *were* true. At some point in all of this, I was going to Casa Vega in hopes of being invited over to his booth. How could I turn this into a script sale?

See? I’m not cool.

One time when I was at the bar, he was at his regular booth... with an incredibly beautiful woman. No one else was invited to the booth that night. She had to be an actress, right? The next big star? Had to be. I wish I was a producer!

So, an actor I had worked with on one of my little cable movies had a supporting role in a huge summer blockbuster from Warner Brothers, and invited me to the premiere. They had given him a handful of tickets and I guess his first choices were all busy or maybe he wanted to make sure he had great dialogue in the thing I was writing or whatever. He invited me. I had to wear uncomfortable shoes. I was going to be at this big premiere that Martin had mentioned he was going to. *That* was my chance to land a job, right? Instead of me being invited over to *his* booth where *he* had all of the power (and I was just some idiot writer), we would both be on equal ground at the premiere. Either at the premiere or the after-party I would casually pitch one of my scripts to him, saying I was just finishing it up... and let him ask to be the first to read it. He knew I was a working screenwriter and had just written an HBO World Premiere Movie - not exactly a Warner Bros summer blockbuster, but there was a full page advert in TV Guide for the film, which I’d once showed him (I was showing it to my pals at the bar and he wanted to take a look, so I was still cool, I think). Hey, we’re both on the red carpet and I mention the new script, and...

So I get to the premiere with the star of my next cable flick and his entourage and start looking for Martin. It’s not like you can look for the blue Ferrari or something, the way these things work is that the red carpet is all about photographers taking pictures of stars... so supporting actors and their entourage are either ushered in first or saved until last. Big producers like Martin are not in the same group as we were... I did spot some other stars - Nick Nolte was there! Why didn’t I bring my VHS of 48 HOURS for him to sign?

Once inside, I looked around for Martin, couldn’t spot him. Also looked around for that hot actress, just in case that was his date. Couldn’t spot her, either. There are ushers who take you to your section, and we were not sitting in the same section that Martin would be sitting in. We were in the seats where supporting actors who were in a few scenes but had their credit in the end roll rather than the opening titles were seated. It was still cool for me - lots of familiar faces. Hey, it’s that guy! Hey, it’s that woman who plays magazine editors! Hey, it’s the guy who plays blue collar guys!

After the movie, we are walking back to the valet stand to retrieve my actor friend’s SUV that we all carpooled in from the Valley, and I happen to glance at one of the event security guards - and it’s Martin. What? I go up to talk to him, and he’s already telling me that he’s just filling in as security at this event, not a day job or anything, just a favor for a friend. You know, just helping out They were a man short and he... just happened to have a suit that matched all of the other security guy’s suits. I told him it was cool, I just wanted to say hello. It was awkward.

The next couple of times I was at Casa Vega, he nodded to me but didn’t wave me over to his booth. It was an interesting kind of avoidance you see in Hollywood where people smile and nod and greet each other - then move on as quickly as possible.

A couple of months later he invited me to his premier.

Yes, he was an actual producer. He had made a low budget horror film starring the *brother* of a big movie star. Same last name, different first name. Also, different level of talent. There was no red carpet for his premiere, and it was an old theater in the Valley... he did pull up in his rented blue Ferrari - there’s a company that rents luxury cars. The movie wasn’t very good - there was a top secret government lab in the story, and the official government sign outside the building had a misspelled word. Oops! The monster also was one of the worst rubber suits I’ve ever seen, and the actor within - not the movie star’s brother - moved like a human. Not convincing. The story seemed as if it had originally been a father and son drama that got a last minute rewrite into a monster movie because some distributor told Martin that horror sells. As far as I know, the film was never released - not even on VHS or DVD or anything else... even with a real movie star’s brother. People think that every movie gets to DVD (or VHS back when this took place), but probably most independent films don’t even make it that far. They end up in film cans in people’s garages. I have no idea if that’s what happened with Martin’s film - but I never saw it anywhere, and even just now when I looked it up on Amazon I didn’t get any hits.

There are a lot of star’s brothers in movies. And star’s sisters. And star’s children. And probably even star’s parents. Some are talented, some are not. Remember, Eric Roberts is the great Oscar nominated actor from STAR 80 and RUNAWAY TRAIN and his sister is the one riding his coattails. There are a whole bunch of actors who end up in the business because they are related to someone famous. This particular one wasn’t very good, but he had a famous last name.

I went to Casa Vega with friends a few times after that, and Martin was still holding court at his booth. I’d nod to him and then drink with my friends. I decided not to blow his cover. Heck, he had a day job - no sin in that. Heck, he probably met the movie star’s brother at some event where he was working as a security guard! He rented an expensive car - not the only customer at that luxury car rental place. Hollywood believes in surface over substance - if you look like a big shot, you are a big shot. You can rent cars and clothes and luxury apartments and arm candy, and how can they tell you apart from the people who don’t rent or lease those things but *own* them? And half of the “real people” rent or lease some of those things anyway. Show don’t tell. As Fernando used to say, "It is better to look good than to feel good." It’s better to look important than to really be important - less responsibility. This business is full of people who fake it until they make it... and sometimes end up just faking it forever...

And in Hollywood, no one can hear you scream.

I wonder if Martin worked the Golden Globes on Sunday night?

- Bill

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