Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Ones that Got Away

When people find out I wrote celebrity profiles, they always want to know "Who was your favorite?" or "Who was the worst?"

Over the years I have codified my stock answers -- favorites (The Coen Brothers, James L. Brooks, The Kids in the Hall, Talking Heads, Beastie Boys, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks) have to do with their personalities, where they were in their careers, and how much access I got (usually a result of the two previous factors; people starting out aren't yet sick of hearing themselves talk, and people who are secure sometimes open up under the right circumstances).

The Worst have to do with a different variety of factors. I'll devote another post to all that.

But what nobody ever asks about, and what really have stuck with me through the years, were the ones that got away. The way most people pine over unrequited loves and crushes,
writers torture themselves about unfinished stories. As with botched love, they can happen for an infinite number of reasons, but the end emotional result is the same.

One of my first lost stories came at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, where I was both covering the Coen Brothers (for Esquire, though the piece ended up in Rolling Stone -- that's a whole other story) and on general assignment for Vanity Fair with the famed photographer Gilles Peress.

Over drinks at a bar, I interviewed Brazilian director Hector Babenco, who had just crossed over from foreign film to American with the landmark, but now largely forgotten, Kiss of the Spider Woman. I couldn't believe how passionate, articulate, and opinionated he was. He left and I picked up my tape recorder (remember those?) to check how much tape was left: it had never started. The batteries had died.

I still filed a piece filled with lots of colorful characters like Dennis Hopper (who was pitching, as always, a sequel to Easy Rider)-- and then Tina Brown killed it because she didn't like Peress' gritty, socialist black-and-white deglamorizing photos. But that's the photographer he is! (Here's one I found from that Festival that he published elsewhere, of Jean-Luc Godard. You be the judge.)
Come to think of it, I actually lost several pieces to photography issues. The two most prominent ones were Uma Thurman for Vogue and Charlize Theron for Cosmo.

Thurman had just divorced Gary Oldman (remember that?) and she was raw and open. We spoke for three hours. But then the photo shoot was apparently disastrous, at least in Anna Wintour's eyes. They did a reshoot, and still -- unsatisfactory.

Can you imagine taking bad pictures of Uma Thurman? (If you've seen my friend RJ Cutler's The September Issue, you'll know the photos were probably fine.) I never even transcribed the tapes. With Vogue, if you don't have pictures, you don't have anything.

For Theron, I flew from New York to Los Angeles, rented a car, drove to the photo studio where I was going to meet Theron after the cover shoot.

I was brusquely told to wait in the reception area, that there was an "issue." I eventually gleaned that Theron had cut off all her hair for a role and the magazine was not happy with the results. After several attempts to put her in wigs, the whole thing was called off, and I was sent packing without even meeting her, even though she was sitting on the other side of a door. (To answer your question, I think I was paid half what I would have been paid had I interviewed her and written the story).
Then there was Paul Reubens. When his scandal erupted, I was outraged -- at the media. Pee-Wee's Playhouse was ingenious, I watched it even before my kids were old enough to. I sent Reubens a letter saying how criminal it would be if my kids had to grow up in a world without Pee-Wee. A week later my phone rang, and it was him! He spoke to me for probably a half hour, off the record, and told me he was just too angry to give an interview, but when he had a new project, I would definitely be the one he spoke to. The years passed, and he ended up giving an interview to my friend Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair. (To be charitable, maybe he got our names confused.)

But the worst lost stories are the ones that would have been scoops, that I devoted tons of time to, which got killed for reasons beyond my control.
I went on the road in Canada with the amazing singer k.d. lang for Rolling Stone when she was still publicly closeted. Over several days I got chummy with her and her band members, and one day we were hanging out in a hotel room and the TV got turned to a country-music channel. A video came on with a woman dressed up in frilly lace, and k.d. snorted. I no longer remember her exact words, but she basically told me that woman was gay and had gone to extremes to cover it up, and how hypocritical it was of the country world to be rejecting her. I finally had the kind of moment of truth reporters can work hours to achieve.

I came back to write the story and was told by my editor that because lang's album wasn't selling and her tour was ending, there was no "news hook" and we'd have to wait to write her up. The whole thing faded away and soon enough she was posing in male drag in Vanity Fair.
Then during Clinton's presidency, I spent months trying to capture his antsy, wayward brother Roger for the New York Times Magazine. Roger had capitalized on his name to start an r&b music career, and I followed him to Farm Aid (above) and then to a gig at a dilapidated Catskills resort, with photographer Jeff Mermelstein in tow, but Roger was too busy doing Jello shots to sit for an interview.

Finally I got him in a New York hotel room, and was transcribing my tapes when I opened the newspaper and there was a half-page interview by Maureen Dowd with....Roger Clinton. She had run into him somewhere, talked to him for a few minutes, and turned it into a withering piece. Neither she nor her editors had any idea the magazine and I had been working on getting a story for months. But as soon as it ran, my piece was killed. I tried to sell it elsewhere, but at the time the feeling was, once something has been in the New York Times, everyone has seen it. (Remember those days?)
The one that still haunts me, though, was my visit to the set of Texasville, the sequel to one of my favorite movies, The Last Picture Show. Director Peter Bogdanovich had reassembled all the original cast members -- at least those who didn't die in the first movie -- and their careers had gone in so many different directions. Jeff Bridges had gone from unknown to superstar; Timothy Bottoms had gone from promising to burnout. Cybill Shepherd had gone from the teenage model who broke up Bogdanovich's marriage to a kind of nutty icon.

The piece also had larger implications: several icons of great 70's movies were returning to their biggest successes trying to recapture their lost glory. Coppola had made Godfather III, Robert Towne and Nicholson the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes. I cherished writing a movie piece wouldn't just be promotional fluff, but have something to say about the changes in Hollywood, and society.

Then the magazine's critic, Peter Travers, saw an early screening of the movie, and told editor Jann Wenner it was bad. Jann killed the piece before it was finished, saying he didn't want to devote pages to a loser movie. I understand his not wanting to seem like he was backing a failure, but....
People want to back a winner. And that's how I found myself interviewing Michael Jordan about....his new cologne.

My editor at TV Guide had called with one of those compromised assignments you take because you need the work.  Jordan was in New York doing a junket about his second cologne, after the first sold a million bottles -- and giving 20-minute interviews at the Bijan boutique on Fifth Avenue. I couldn't talk to him about basketball, but maybe I could get something useable.

Okay, I agreed. Who wouldn't want to meet Michael Jordan? I prepared as many cologne related questions as I could think of. "When you were a kid walking around those North Carolina pines, did you ever think, some day I'll put this in a bottle and make millions?" That kind of thing. I was given a press packet with a ton of suggested questions. Inside they had mistakenly also given me a xerox of Michael's own prep materials, which instructed him how to swing the conversations back to cologne.

I was ushered into a dimly lit room. The publicist stayed by my elbow. I turned on the tape recorder. Michael was polite, but soft spoken and nearly monosyllabic. He laughed at my questions but gave me little. Finally, I broached the forbidden subject. Scottie Pippen had just been quoted saying something outrageous, so I started to quote it back to him. The cologne publicist grabbed my elbow and said firmly "We said, no basketball." And I was ushered out, only about 10 minutes into my allotted 20.

I went back home and listened to the tape. Something had gone wrong. My voice was fine, but his answers were drowned out by hiss. I brought the tape around to a recording engineer friend who cleaned it up as best as possible and I wrote a nearly quote-free article. Not my finest moment.

I sent a venting email to sports fan Aaron Sorkin, for whom I had co-freelanced an episode of Sports Night with Mark McKinney, telling him the story. He wrote  back "You just pitched me an episode."

Oh! I immediately came up with the title: The Sweet Smell of Air.

Several months and drafts later, the bottom-rated show-within-a-show "Sports Night" was offered a similarly compromised interview with Michael Jordan. They need him for the ratings. Josh Malina ran around  spitballing possible questions they could ask Michael Jordan, including "When you were a kid....." and then discovering the prep sheet for Michael inside the press packet.

(This being idealized Sorkinland, of course, William H. Macy tells them to turn Jordan down.)

Sometimes the ones that got away lead you to a happy ending anyway.


Jason said...

'Kiss of the Spiderwoman ' is 'largely forgotten'??? What, because it's 25 years old??? Those 2 men's performances are VERY clear in my memory...

David Handelman said...

If you've seen it, it's memorable. I just wonder if anyone under 35 has heard of the movie. It never gets referenced, put on best-ofs, etc. Babenco's career never took off. Julia died young. Hurt is kind of a fringe character actor now compared to his status then.

Sal Nunziato said...

Plus, it took forever to come out on DVD, only finally getting a release about 2 years ago. What's up with that?

Robert said...

I once interviewed one of (if not the) biggest working producers around. After opening with a fairly innocuous question he responded with: "Do you have a f&%$#@ing brain?" I will say here what I said to him then..."depends on who you're asking." He laughed and we were able to move on with the interview.

Let the guessing game begin in 3-2-1...

David said...

here's the new weird twist on distribution of Kiss of the Spiderwoman:

(also further proof of your point that just because something's in the NYT now doesn't mean everyone knows about it)

One lesson from your blog: take enough notes so that if your tape recorder dies you can still pull out some reliable quotes ...

jeff said...

Reminds of when I was working on a book about New York City, and I visited this fellow who had been a member of the old Harlem renaissance in the 1920s. In the middle of the chat, he just dropped into the conversation that he had been Rudolph Valentino's last lover. He then went into quite a bit of detail.

When I went home and turned on the tape: bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

I went back and got most of it from him again, although not quite with the same verve. That was an excellent recorder too. I've since gone digital. They're much more reliable, although I can't figure out how to operate most of them.

Daniel said...

David that story is fantastic.

I was just braced for Sorkin to have you write the episode and then... cancel airing it at the last minute.

and great title for the episode! Better even than Absence of Malick.

And I also used a radio shack cassette recorder (sometimes a mini-cassette) most times it was fine. but one or two malfunctions made life miserable.

jentaub said...

Love this piece -- especially because Kiss of the Spiderwoman is a favorite movie.

Also -- and here I go again with my analogous memory -- sorry -- because I once shot a roll of film of black and white on a manual 35 mm camera (high school photography class) for a photojournalism assignment. It was St. Patrick's Day.

The whole roll was scenes from Royal Oak -- a small town that still felt like one in the 80s. My favorite image was the a guy getting a shave, reflected off the barber's mirror.

Went to the school dark room, wound the film around the spool in the dark bag, developed the film in the canister, hung it by a close pin off the line to dry.

When I went to look at it, in the light, the long strip of film was all clear. I couldn't comprehend. Then realized, it had never been exposed. I had failed to lock the film around the gears of the camera correctly.

I was so upset. So shocked. So angry. Understanding the loss, but no knowing till much, much later -- like 25 years later -- that I remember and treasure those photos much more than ones that really existed.

YRG said...

David-- great post! I followed the link on Hollywood-elsewhere to your blog. You've got another reader!