Archive for June, 2008

George Carlin, R. I. P.

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Well, I’m just at that age, I guess, where I’m losing friends and acquaintances at the rate of about once a week now. The brilliant comedian George Carlin is the latest. He just died of heart failure.

George Carlin was an amazing guy. He went through a few careers and many ups and downs. I won’t go into detail on his bio which is readily available all over the place right now. In a nutshell, his career began as a two-man stand-up act, Burns and Carlin; then George flew solo. When I first saw him on TV he was very funny and particularly straight looking. There was nothing too much about him to make him stand out from the other fine comedians at practice during that time. Then George changed. He dropped out, rewrote his act and grew his hair. He became the comic icon of our generation, the quintessential hippy comedian. Carlin went to jail on Freedom of Speech issues. He began acting on TV and in film. He wrote bestselling books. His stand-up act changed, becoming deeper, more political and more artful.

The amazing thing to me about George’s act is that unlike most other comedians’ acts, his act didn’t mellow with age. If anything, it got more blindingly savage with each successive year. I admired him for continuing to take those chances at the risk of alienating his audience.

I first met George when I took a course in Comedy at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. George Carlin was one of my instructors (it was a pretty amazing course; included amongst my other instructors were Richard Pryor, Dustin Hoffman and Kenneth Mars). The George Carlin I met there and talked to after class was very different from his ferocious stage persona. He was one of the kindest, most generous, gentle and thoughtful souls I have ever met.

If you were a friend of his, he was loyal to you for life. A close, mutual friend decided to make the difficult transition from doing costume design for stage, TV and film to entering the rocky world (lemme tell ya) of Fine Art as a painter. During her down financial times George would always come through with orders for a couple of pairs of custom made raw silk pants from her. He did this for decades and never, ever made her feel like it was done out of charity on his part. Man, did he rave about those pants!

George Carlin’s work and writing transcended geographical and generational boundaries. I found he has a huge fan base at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. My sons (especially my youngest, James) became big George Carlin fans initially through his HBO specials. I loved sharing those specials with my boys. They loved the shock and surprise of his humor, and especially responded to George’s love for the peculiarities of the English language. When Carlin’s books came out, they devoured them.

George, you just lost your front row seat to what you referred to as the Circus of Life. I like to think you’re watching it from the celestial balcony now, sitting right in between Richard Pryor and Mark Twain.

Peace and Rest to You, My Friend.

The Fall

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

I saw a brave, magnificent film yesterday: Tarsem’s “The Fall”. Although I found flaws with it, the courage and vision it took to make such a film overwhelm whatever criticisms I might have of this amazing work of cinema. “The Fall” was shot in 18 different countries (including spectacular India locations) and was financed by the director out of his own pocket from the money he made shooting TV commercials. Tarsem broke the First Rule of Hollywood: Never put your own money into your own film (Spielberg never does).

You can watch the trailer at http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2511470873/

It gives you a taste of the movie without giving away too many of the surprises. Imagine The Princess Bride meets Lawrence of Arabia meets Baron Munchausen meets Fellini — with a dash of M. C. Escher!

I was especially touched by Tarsem’s use of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony at the film’s beginning and end. The scene in which birds fly out of the old man’s mouth as he is dying is Guillermo del Toro-wonderful.

“The Fall” is getting really crappy minimal promotion, so see this fine film before it disappears from theaters. This is DEFINITELY a BIG SCREEN movie! SO MUCH will be lost on DVD (although I’ll be the first person in line to purchase it when it comes out).

The film was produced by fellow directorial artists Spike Jonez and David Fincher, who righteously and obviously believed in their fellow creator’s unique cinematic vision.

If you’re a follower of my Journal you’ll know that I rarely hype films. The staggering visuals in this one make it deserve any boost I or anyone else can possibly give it.

Stan Winston, R.I.P.

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

My colleague Stan Winston has passed away.

Stan and I did one film together, the 1986 remake of “Invaders From Mars.” His team built the Martian Drones that I had designed. We both worked on the design of the Martian Supreme Intelligence for that movie; it was Stan’s people who designed and fabricated this creature as it finally appeared in the film.

The Martian Drone was based upon something Rick Baker had told me he’d always wanted to do. Rick said that whenever you see a guy-in-a-suit creature, you can always tell it’s a guy in a suit because of the human configuration inside that suit. We all know how and where knees and elbows bend in a human. Rick asked, what if you designed a creature suit to be worn backwards? The knees of that suit would be bending the wrong way for a human, fooling or a least confusing the audience.

I took that idea and ran with it, presenting it to Tobe Hooper at an early informal pre-production meeting at Tobe’s home. Stan was there as well. Tobe OK’ed the backwards suit idea and look on the spot. I gave xerox copies of the Drone design to Tobe and Stan.

After the picture came out I got a surreal call from Stan. He was irate. He had just read an article on “Invaders” in Starlog or Fangoria in which I talked about how I had designed the Martian Drone.

“I DESIGNED the Martian Drone!” screamed Stan. I could scarcely believe my ears. Fortunately, I found Stan’s claim pretty hilarious. I walked him through the sequence of events in the suit design. He wouldn’t budge.

“BUT I DESIGNED IT!” he shouted.

“If you don’t believe me, then you should ask Tobe about it,” I replied.

“I did,” said Stan.

“Well, what did Tobe say?”

“He said he recalled when you brought in the design and gave it to me.” Stan paused. “BUT I DESIGNED IT!”

I just shook my head, hung up the phone and laughed. I was the recipient of another surreal Hollywood story, one of many.

Years later, Stan was working for a friend of mine, the talented producer-director Steve Miner. Steve had thrown a huge party at his place to celebrate the release of his latest film. I was invited. I ran into Stan at the party. He was neither angry nor overly friendly with me. I think he was really happy about the way in which his career was progressing.

Several more years later I was working on the lot at Universal. Steven Spielberg had hired me to design the first three flagship gaming clubs (for Seattle, WA, Ontario, CA, and Tempe AZ) of his called GameWorks. It was a joint project between DreamWorks SKG, Universal and Sega games. Steven was simultaneously directing Jurassic Park.

I had several friends at Stan Winston Studios. They sneaked me in on a Saturday to see all of the dinosaur work they were doing for Jurassic Park. A lot of it, as we all now know, was pretty amazing. His shop gave me new respect for Stan. It was state-of-the-art in terms of having the safest, most healthy working conditions for his employees of any facility I had ever seen. There were huge fans in the ceiling that immediately sucked all of the noxious and hazardous fumes out of the work areas. There was even a small gym on the premises. It was quite impressive; I cut Stan a lot of slack after seeing all of that.

Months later, I was still working at Universal (I worked on the GameWorks project for about two years). I happened to run into Stan. He was very enthusiastic and extremely gracious. He asked if I had time to see what they were doing on Jurassic Park. He whisked me past security and took me onto Steven’s closed set. Stan was like a man transformed. He exhibited not an ounce of jealousy or animosity towards me. He seemed genuinely happy to see me. I think he saw me as an empathetic colleague who had fought and gone through many of the same or similar battles one gets thrown into working in the film business at our elevated level. I was no longer a threat; instead, I was one of the very few guys he could relate to, a fellow film warrior who perhaps knew and understood what he had gone through because I had been through it myself.

The tour was wonderful. Stan was rightfully proud of what his JP crew had created.

We’ve been warm and friendly to each other ever since that moment, giving each other advice and sharing film biz tips. I’m gonna miss him.

The lesson to be taken home here is that people can change for the better. I know the last thirty some years of my life has included my own struggle not to be an asshole. For whatever reasons, I haven’t always been successful. I wince at the memories of some of the stuff I’ve done or said to both friends and strangers. For me, the battle is never over, although my batting average in the last decade or so I like to think has been pretty good. It takes just as much energy to be nice to someone as it does to be nasty — so why not be nice?

Peace To Stan; Peace to You All…