Guest Post – Hollywood: The Road In, The Road Out – Jon Robberson of Brothers on the Wall

Jon Robberson Jr.

The question posed to me most often is, “how do you break into Hollywood?”  The answer is interesting and dissatisfying.  The answer is as paradoxical as Hollywood itself; every story is different and every story is the same.  From the Executive Producer to the lowliest PA, through the Enchanted Forest and along the cliff clinging roads that once plowed through projectors, the breakdowns are different but the destination is not.  Like scenarios lost in the nitrate of time, even how or where the expensive, shabby little town got its name is a matter of fierce debate.  Of course like all Hollywood brawls, there is only one rule: in Hollywood nobody knows nothin’.

I am tempted to launch into a first draft about how Hollywood got its name, where the money came from and were the Silent Era stars and big name bagmen really occultists, but you can hear the story for yourself, as well as episode 339 of Caravan to Midnight.

Rather, allow me to dispel a lot of horse hooey about how I got into Hollywood, what I did there and the chair splitting, asphalt eating exit that almost killed me.

It was the beginning of a new century (well, this is a Hollywood story), “In a new century, in a new millennium…”  Okay, I’ll leave Don LaFontaine out of this.

Here’s what went down.  January, 2000, in Los Angeles and New York there was one word on every aspiring film makers’ tongue: digital.  The Blair Witch Project screamed through Sundance a year earlier and was released at the end of July, 1999.  The film was the first cinematic internet meme, with an original production budget of $60,000 (a few bucks were added in post-production) and a total box office receipt of $249 million. To say it was a very successful marketing ploy would be an understatement.  The night before my partner in crime, Johnny B, and I trucked down to The Hollywood Galaxy (long gone) to see the film I had a nightmare about The Blair Witch Project.  Now that’s when you know a film is scary Larry; when you’re bad dreamin’ before you’ve seen it.  Unfortunately, through the actual 81 minutes that we hung in there, the film sucked.

1999 was a rough year for high expectations yielding stale results.  Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace? But at the close of the twentieth century we were also empathetically enveloped in adoration and horror: Shakespeare in Love, Life Is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan and a whimsically dark little feature by a couple of unknown auteurs, twin brothers, who played Siamese twins in Twin Falls, Idaho.

At the time I had a buddy several years younger than me who constantly hounded me to drive him to Mr. Mailbox on Sunset Blvd.  I waited in the car.  He bounded out minutes later with a splay of windowed envelopes, tearing them open on our way back to a Delongpre Avenue apartment building that is, at present, falling down.  The checks were many and he would remark, “acting money.”  He never actually mentioned the word “background”.  But it was cool to be out of San Francisco and down south where it all happens.  In San Francisco, people watch a lot of movies.  In Hollywood, people make a lot of movies.  Between Andrew, Johnny B and myself, we intended to show Daniel Myrick and Ed Sanchez how it was really done.

No story flows smoothly in Hollywood until you are in a cavernous room and the blue beam mesmerizes a gaggle of strangers.  Mine is no different.

Winter, 1993, Marin County just north of the city, over The Golden Gate bridge: of all the places for a dream to begin, mine launched in the living room of yet another apartment building, directly across the street from The College of Marin.  As far as I know it is, at present, still standing.  After another depressing night pitching tortillas at a funky joint in Mill Valley I entered my shared living room to find a total stranger sitting on my roommate’s sofa.

Sometimes strangers become familiar.  Sometimes strangers change your life.

His name is Mark Polish.  He has a twin brother named Michael.  Mark and I shared similar taste in music, new bands and film.  He already lived in Hollywood and had a backyard boxing short, a 16mm, black and white, shot in Roseville (near Sacramento) in the can and on the indie festival circuit.  We became buddies.

Two years previous to meeting Mark I began taking a seat here and there to chisel a raw gift into a craft.  A year before we met, I glommed Ernest Hemingway’s advice and pounded away every day with the singular goal of banging out one page of writing.  Good writing.  Six months before the God shot of that night in that Marin County apartment, I dove across the street, into Creative Writing 101, Screenwriting 101 and English 202, at the college.  It never ceases to amaze me how God places us exactly where we need to be, exactly when we need to be there.  (Romans 8:28)

Through the mega-storms of ’93-’94, I sat down with The Polish Brothers and we cranked out a script with the working title Middle Fork.  The rain fell so furiously that winter over the hamlets of Marin that through the manhole covers water spewed like fountains.  It was a magic place to be considering I read Mark’s copy of Screenplay by Syd Field a couple of weeks before collaborating with two guys who have gone on to noteworthy careers.  Two more tidbits about that early collaborative effort: after two or three months of writing, I got booted off of the project and on August 1, 2003 the film (retitled North Fork) was released by Sony.  I have never watched the film for the same reason you hesitate or refuse to call an ex.  Imdb reveals that the plot is more or less what we wrote and even the cast is scary close to the talent that Mark and Michael envisioned, including: Daryl Hannah, Nick Nolte, James Woods and Mark himself.  It irritates me that portions of my creative spirit are stupid-obvious from a single blink at imdb, but I hold no ill will toward The Polish Brothers.  In fact, I have always felt confident that our paths will cross again.  Plus, everyone in Hollywood has a burn story.  And yeah, mine have stained many bar napkins.  (Matthew 6:15)
December 1999, hot nerves fired fragmented bone into my jawline.

The ravishing (and equally doomed) Natalie Wood used to refer to hitting her public persona as “turning it on”.  I squared my shoulders, tightened my tie and stepped into the concrete edifice.  Icey air hit my face and my life hit Beverly Hills cool.  The place was murderous and full of women aspiring to their “turn it on” moment.

I scanned the room, eyes drowning just above the horizon.

“This place looks like a bent battleship.”

The place was Kate Mantilini.  It was part steak house, part Denny’s and the place to land the part.  Multimillion dollar deals punched across tables, from the six major studios and all of the indies to: ICM, CAA, William Morris, Endeavor, you name it.  It was a place to eat.  And a place to die.

The frumpy manager somehow reminded me of an old sunflower.  She took my resume and eyed me nose-to-toes.  I smiled.  She hired me.  That poor woman.  I would ultimately lie to her and charm her a thousand times.

We served shoe string fries to Muhammed Ali.  Meatloaf to Bill Clinton.  Espresso to Sean Penn.  Springsteen would slip in, sit on the first stool at the bar, watch TV and drink tap water.  He always left $100 bucks under his glass.

Have you ever tasted certainty, static and salt and swore you would bleed for another tiny taste?

I have.  And did.
“Dude I swear if one more of these brunch bitches slaps me with ‘Oy vey’ and slams her eggs Florentine back at me I’m going to go kablooey.”

The waiter, his back to me and stooped over a coffee pot was a good four inches taller than his reputation as a ladies’ man.  He spun around.  It was Sunday morning.

“Dude, I’m Jewish.”

“Oh man I am so sorry.  I’m not antisemitic dude, just pissed.”

His consternation became confidential.  “I can tell you’re not.  But chill.  And watch what you say.  You don’t want to hurt feelings.  That’s not where you’re at.”

“No.  Yeah.” I stared at the floor.

He smiled and dashed with a tray of $4 coffees.  Over the tray he whispered, “I’m not Jewish man.”

A lesson learned and an unlikely ten years of friendship followed.  Then it died.  On a set.  In the city of Carson.

Certainty.  Static.  Salt.  At Kate Mantilini your heart would break, your mind panic to black and white fragments.  Sometimes your nose would bleed. There were actors on the wait staff.  Actresses behind the bar.  Writers at the hostess stand.  Stunt men steaming through the kitchen.  We shared two things: a dream in our souls and reality in the booths.  And that is what it was like.  Anyone who was there will read this with wistful respite for memories washed down the gutter on the corner of Wilshire and Doheney.

January 2000, if you were somebody in Hollywood, the word “digital” brought the same anxiety that the word “sound” did in 1926.  If you were nobody the word “digital” spelled h-o-p-e.  Everyone could feel it, from the agent, who refused to greet eye contact, over his egg whites with tomato and basil, to the Midwest cupcake pouring his coffee and thinking “…worth over a hundred million bucks and his stable is crap.”

If you want to make money, go to Wall Street. If you want to make lies go to Madison Avenue.  If you want to make money and lies, go to Hollywood.  But be as honest with yourself as any of the waitresses were and admit you love money and whereas you may never cop to your lies, you will dole out $15 to see how it’s done.  Take a two-hour lesson in the dark.  Take the darkness home.  And you’re hooked.  And in Hollywood they know it.  And I know it.  And that’s how it’s done.

 

I lived at 1825 North Kingsley between Franklin Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.  It was a faded five story building, built in the late ‘20’s and it, too, played a role in old school Tinsel town.  Billy Wilder shot the exterior as Fred McMurray’s apartment in his 1944 thriller noir, Double Indemnity.

The 93-year-old legend looked at me with rheumy determination.  “I will have, please, calves’ brains with the black butter.”  His nurse or assistant or subservient chum slid his martini closer to the mind that gave us Sunset Boulevard, Around the World in 80 Days and Some Like It Hot.

“Mister Wilder, if I may, in a strange way our paths have crossed.”  No flutter in my voice, just a tinge of curiosity.

He focused his eyes, the eyes that spellbound millions upon millions, and sipped his drink.  I could almost taste the mediocre gin.

“I live on North Kingsley and Double Indemnity is one of my favorite films and I’ve scanned it back and forth and you shot the front of my building as Fred McMurray’s character’s place.”

“No.  We shot in Chateau Marmont.”  His Austrian pronunciation of “Chateau Marmont” was a whisper, those eyes met his mind back in 1944.  It felt like I was immersed in warm water.  Beads of sweat broke across my brow.  Ever tried correcting a director?

I flipped the script.  “Interiors!”  Blurted beads flew from my upper lip.

He shrank, taken aback behind table ten, the first booth in the door.  Billy’s booth.

“Yes.  Yes.  Interiors.”  Another sip.  I wondered if he drank the same gin in 1944.

I served the calves’ brains with black butter.  A year later table ten was vacated.  You may find it, and the legend, somewhere down a long celluloid road.  Somewhere in the darkness, somewhere, where a final “that’s a wrap,” breaks my heart.

 

My phone rang.  It was Derrick (my non-Jewish waiter pal).

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“You wanna work tomorrow?”  His tone was noncommittal, the jangle of new car keys.

“Work?  Or work?”

I could hear a smile. “Work, dude.  On a movie.”

It was a zig or zag moment.  The following day was Rezfest at the DGA (Director’s Guild of America) and I had a plus one invitation.  Or I could meet my buddy and work on a “no budge” little project titled Myopia.  For free.  I wish I could credit whoever instilled in me the understanding that when faced with a choice between that which is fun and that which is unknown, especially when unknown is mixed with hard work, your best bet is to choose the latter.  (John 9:4)

I went to work.

“Okay here’s your first project.  Grab a ten step and some two-inch white gaff and Greek out the zip on that header.”

I looked at the Production Designer.  He looked at me.  We stood in a house in Laurel Canyon for (yet more Hollywood-speak) several beats.  A beat is a pause.  A beat is about as long as a “Mississippi”.

“Copy?” he was being pulled away.  Literally.

“Sure.”

Here is his request in English:

“Grab that orange Home Depot ladder, the big one, and a roll of the larger white cloth tape.  See that lamp cord coming out of the fixture we hung?  Cover the cord along the ceiling with the tape so the camera won’t see it.”

That single instruction lit Aladdin’s lamp.  The genie awoke.  Spirits flew around the room and ten thousand more were waiting at Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal.  (Ephesians 2:2)

What did I know?  There were tools, smiles and pretty girls everywhere.  Someone’s mom was in the backyard popping mini sandwiches into a George Foreman grill.  I never looked back.  Never.  Until the rearview mirror was all I had left.

The first real show that I worked on was a few months later.  It was a cheap, dark little made for TV movie called After Diff’rent Strokes: When the Laughter Stopped.  I started out on the show as a shopper for the Set Dec. department.  Here’s a little behind the scenes: on stupid, rinky-dink little shows everyone calls Set Decoration the “Art Department”.  Set Dec is NOT the Art Department.  Set Dec is Set Dec.  On real shows (i.e.: union shows) the Art Department consists of (from the top down): The Art Director, Set Designer(s), Construction Coordinator, Construction, Paint and Greens; all budgeted by and fully answerable to the Production Designer.

Here’s another glimpse behind the curtain: before you track down irrelevant tidbits on imdb, keep in mind that in Hollywood just because you worked on a project is by no means a guarantee that you will be credited on said project.  Why?  Because credits cost money.  When you earn your dough under the umbrella of any I.A.T.S.E (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) craft, you work based more on who you know than what you know.  For this reason, veteran grips, electricians, set dressers, costumers rarely update imdb.  In Hollywood we use imdb the same way you do; to figure out the name of that guy that was Russel Crowe’s buddy in…what was that movie again?

Back to the TV thing about Arnold, Willis and Kimberly.  It was close to the “no budget” category, but Production had a deal through Fox TV so there was enough money to hire a Key Grip who wore a kilt, bring Todd Bridges around to monitor the monitor during shooting and rent a dilapidated RV that played as the one Dana Plato OD’d in, in Oklahoma.  We shot the scene in Marina Del Ray.

As a twelve-year-old, I snuck to 7-11 regularly with my buddies to steal whatever we could wrangle into our pants.  It was the early eighties and I had a serious crush on Kimberly, um, Dana.  Memories did not occur to me, seeing her freckled face all over teen magazines at 7-11, while I scattered prop pills around the table, in the picture vehicle sixteen years later.  But they do now.

I will enumerate some of the noteworthy stuff I worked on.  If you care to, you can email me at info@brothersonthewall.com if you want a few details on the projects that I list.

Television: Alias, The Agency, Arrested Development, Big Love, Brothers and Sisters Chuck, CSI, CSI Cyber, Pretty Little Liars and Superstore.

Feature Films: Catch Me If You Can, Cradle to the Grave, Garfield, Miss Congeniality Part II, National Treasure, Pirates of the Caribbean.

The above list is a partial rundown of the shows that I worked.  In 2009 I hit a rough patch of unemployment and at the time I had to actually sit down and bang out a resume.  The show list ran over 130 titles.  That resume is seven years old, this month.

 

Hollywood is a boring grid of cracker box houses, a Walk of Fame that I passed out underneath regularly, trampled by kids, gutter punks, tourists and dreamers…all looking for something that isn’t there.  The majority of pre-production happens on the west side and in Beverly Hills.  Almost everyone lives in the Valley and whereas Paramount and the diminutive Sunset-Gower Studios are in Hollywood, two of the biggies are west of Fairfax Avenue and the other three are over the hill, in Burbank.  Hollywood Forever is the bone yard for the (no longer) rich and famous and one lovely juxtaposition for eyes that can see, is a glimpse of the Paramount water tower, that stands silent, shading dead heroes, just south and over a fence from the dead heroines of yesterday.  (Hebrews 9:27, Matthew 6:19).

When I left San Francisco in early 1998 I thought there could not possibly be another place so rich in history, so haunted by personal demons, known and unknown, a place that breathes hyper imagination.  There is.  You will find it on the other end of 370 of the most painfully boring miles in the country.  Whether you exit US101 on Highland, Gower or Sunset, the sharp shadows of possibility will be waiting.  An idealized life will tempt you from just over the heat shimmering sidewalks or inside The Arclight Cinema, or anywhere that your desires fold your stomach into a dry walnut, rolling it into traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard, crushed by speeding Angelinos who are richer than you, more important than you and prettier than you.

It takes between six months to a year to look across most of the Southern California Basin and see anything that doesn’t look and smell like suburban litter smashed by hot, brown wind against a chain link fence wrapped around a vacant lot.  Yeah, there’s the beach towns but they are separated from movie making by your annual income and the 405.  I have heard it said and have read many times that the journey across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan is the longest in American entertainment.  If it is, the road through Laurel Canyon may be more scenic but it’s equally long, equally expensive and equally dangerous.

It also takes six months to a year before you find yourself dating far more attractive people than you did back in wherever-you-come-from.  At the six-month mark, you should have an open invitation and perhaps a line of credit with the dealers of your drug(s) of choice; especially with the ghouls who sell the whites.  You will not only know where the clubs are, but exactly where to park and the perfect route home at 2:07am when you are slithering along the back roads, white knuckles, weaving headlights, darkened heart.

See, Hollywood was designed to snare your eyes, hook your will, compromise your everything and feed you with lies until you are bloated, defeated, dead.  Stunningly lovely women eat entire bottles of pills.  Dudes blow their brains out, all over their six-pack abs.  A combination of both leap from what could have been, off of what is, and into what will be…forever.  (Romans 2:6-8, Revelation 21:8).  Often their last glimpse of this world is the blackened foundation of a mansion on the Rose Bowl side of The Writers’ Bridge, the only remnant of Wayne Manor, burned to the ground by a shooting company ten years ago.

I worked in that mansion before the conflagration in 2005.  If you were ever a fan of the primetime ABC show Alias, we shot in that particular location in several episodes, particularly in seasons two and three.  I remember being excruciatingly hung over, chatting with a couple of ex-Mossad guys who were Jennifer Garner’s body guards, while she and her stunt double, Shauna, blocked and shot a scene where the Sydney Bristow (Jennifer’s) character leaps forward and kicks a globe at an assailant.  I specifically recall working with props to piece that globe back together during resets because we had only two cardboard stunt globes and the choreography of the scene was complicated.

Hungover.  As far as I am concerned they should have named Hollywood “Hangover”.  Even for someone like myself who actually pulled paychecks and a decent living out of the industry, one of the things that almost everyone in town shares is a pronounced sense of doing something or being someone other than who or what you ventured there to be.  And the longer you stare into that reservoir, the more that feeling overtakes many of the feelings that make you, you.  Until it becomes a natural reaction to self-medicate.  And the most popular drug of choice in Hollywood, the dope fad that never fades is alcohol.

 

I stared into white light and thought for the hundredth time, punch in the Ativan, then we’ll talk.

“I remember you from maybe six months ago.”  Asian doctor.  Friendly face.  Compassionate eyes.

“Yeah.  Unfortunately, this ain’t my first rodeo.”

“You are at point four.”

I winced.  The shakes rattled through what cogent real estate was still listed in my Mad Max mind.  Point four?

“You could be dead.  People have right there on that gurney.”

“What?”

“Died.”  Face still friendly but concern cornered his mouth.

He asked me what my problem was.  The nurse slammed two milligrams of Ativan home and I drifted to a girl, through the static of internet radio, past an overpriced apartment that was a thousand bucks below market and reeked like three well-loved and totally ignored cats.  I left out the studios, the street drugs, the breakups, the stars.  I skipped the part about walking past a dead dog on Western Avenue at 5:45am, aiming for 7-11 and the six/twelve combo: six am equals twelve beers to kill two grams still burning rubber through my heart.  I think I drifted back to the girl.  But she is a ghost and according to this ER doctor I was doing my damnedest to become one too.

Be warned: when you decide to wade into a fight that flings lethal weapons from forces unseen, if you do so without the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:12-18) Satan will slaughter you.  He will hit you where you cannot defend yourself. He will strike you in places that hurt so bad, you didn’t know pain until the blow landed.  He will connive you through the pain to revisit realms you thought were conquered.  The Devil will loop through your aching mind scenes that you barely lived through the first time they wound through your projector; the projector, that hot black beast breathing, igniting celluloid nitrate and immolating projection booths, innocent lives lost, innocent until a guilty script plays its final reel in the Throne Room of God.(Romans 3:23, II Corinthians 5:10, John 14:6).

 

I ratted Hollywood out.  And got caught.

It wasn’t exactly the crime of the century.  On October 9, 2015 I told the story to who knows how many thousands of people (I try not to think about it) on The Hagmann and Hagmann Report.  I heard my own voice say “I felt like a hypocrite on one side of the studio gate, a traitor on the other.”

Regardless of the position held, if you work “below the line” in the movie ‘biz, the never-ending slew of shows, saving cash, going broke, standing three feet from fame and hiding a thousand miles from your life, is called “the golden handcuffs.”  Not everyone working within the darkness of Stage 6 at Warner Brothers, Stage Two at Disney or Stage Twelve at Universal is hiding out, but most are.  Even if you don’t have a drive on pass for the lot, you will find the hiding place at the intersection of darkened hope and fire white desire.

Funny thing about the golden handcuffs.  Everyone bound by them, and I mean everyone possesses the key.  I concluded my previous article The Evidence of Things Not Seen: hhconnections to “Brothers on the Wall” with Hebrews 11:1.

Hebrews 11:1 is my favorite scripture from the entire Bible.  Why?  Ask yourself this: did any part of my story resonate with you?  Are you shivering under a wet security blanket?  Has your life become so unrecognizable that the fraying vestiges of who God made you to be are screaming while you tell lies to the bottom of a bottle or a coke-smeared mirror?  Or are you just so lonely that people scare you?  Start with Hebrews 11:1.

Hollywood is like thick dry ice, heavy, swirling around the floor as lights play and splay off of the foggy screen.  It is ambient.  Moody.  Sensual.  It is alluring and pleasing to the eye; camera ready.  It is love you never had and never will.

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