"Myself in four words."
Posted - 11/08/2012 : 00:24:19
| I was saddened to hear about the passing of my friend and former mentor Mel Stuart, director of Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and many documentaries. I have so much to say about Mel that one letter can’t cover it all. He was a colorful character, known by many as an irrational screamer, but once I got to know him, he proved himself to be a hell of a good guy.
And he gave me my first job in Hollywood.
At the age of 23, when I first came to LA from a small New England town to do a college internship I met editor Jason Rosenfield, who hired me as his assistant on his next show, a documentary directed by Mel. Jason warned me that Mel liked to get angry just for the fun of it. Still, I was ecstatic because Wonka was, and always will be, one of my very favorite movies. I have every moment memorized. I love the humor, the dark edge, the music and Gene Wilder’s dark but heartfelt performance. Falling in love with that film as a child led me to fall in love with film in general, and that led me to Hollywood. My first real job and I was working for one of my idols.
The day I began, Mel came to the edit room, yelling at me about something that had happened the week prior. He bellowed for 5 minutes. When he was done, I stared for a moment and said, "I'm sorry. Did you say something? You DO realize I just started today, right?" He paused for a second and then erupted into devilish laughter. That was the beginning of our relationship.
Working for Mel was a very interesting experience, to say the least. Mel had directed a number of films about the Kennedys. In fact, according to him, he was in Hyannis at their home when JFK was shot, and at the Ambassador Hotel when RFK was shot. He claimed to have footage of RFK’s death that no one had ever seen.
He truly was an expert on the subject. He made one of the first narrative films about the assassination, Ruby and Oswald, and knew every detail of that day. AND I had the fortune of working with him at the time that Oliver Stone's JFK was released - a film he thought was a stylish work of utter fiction. He knew beyond a doubt that Oswald had acted alone and for every point of debate I would present, he had a factual argument that put the matter to rest.
On a couple of occasions, he gathered the assistant staff together and led us to the theater, just to watch the JFK courtroom scene and take notes. He debated Stone on a few radio shows. The highlight of this period was the day he came to the edit bay, arranged our chairs and bodies in the same positions as in Kennedy’s death car, and then poked us with a yardstick to show us trajectory and points of impact. I got to play Jackie. Surreal and not at all in the job description.
Also not in the job description was part-timing for an anti-graffiti artist. On more than one occasion, Mel would enlist me into carrying a stepladder for as much as a block down Robertson Boulevard, where his office was located. As dangerous as it was in the California heat, Mel kept a rainbow of spray paints in the trunk of his car. Whenever he would spot graffiti on his stretch of Robertson, he would climb the ladder and erase it with the closest matching color.
“This is the only block in all of Los Angeles without graffiti,” he would proudly report as I lugged the ladder back to the office.
Mel still erupted occasionally into unwarranted flashes of anger but for some reason it never got to me. He had little patience, but he a wicked sense of humor.
“You know in Wonka when Wilder yanks out the kid’s hair as they enter the big room? That was my idea,” he recalled proudly, “The kid had no idea he was going to do that.”
He called me up to his office one day and handed me an envelope. He said, “Before you open it, make a wish.” This could only mean one thing so I knew exactly what to wish for – and it immediately came true.
Inside was an original Willie Wonka Golden Ticket, perhaps the only verified one in existence. I pulled it out and fingered it with wide-eyed amazement, in much the way Charlie did in the movie. Mel smiled and said, “You want that?”
I couldn’t believe it! “I said “Oh my god! Really? Of course I do!”
He snapped it out of my hand. “You wish!!” and then he rocked with laughter.
Wonka and Mel were cut from the same purple cloth. Devilish, sometimes mean, more verbally and expletively dexterous than anyone else in the room. Much like his most famous creation however, he was a man of contradictions, seemingly unapproachable and unsympathetic on the inside but once you peeled away the wrapper, you found something pretty sweet inside.
Mel took a liking to me and, along with Jason, recommended me as a cheap editor to a producer who was editing montages for the Emmys. Mel loved editors who could get the job done, especially when they got the job done his way. My wife Elaine, who had made the trek to LA with me and who was also just starting out in the business, joined me in celebrating my first paid job as an editor. We spent all the money we didn’t have on a pool-fueled weekend at a Motel 6 near Calabasas. Living the high life!
I left Mel’s employ and my career started following its own path. I would stop in to visit him on occasion but those visits became less frequent as time went on. I rented his edit system for a few months to edit a low budget feature and he would pop in now and then to tell me what a piece of shit it was. He was right. It was.
Every new job I took, someone there had once worked with Mel and would go on and on about how much of a screamer he was. One director told me “Mel gave a start to more people in the documentary business than anyone – and that means more people in this business have stories about how awful he was to work for.”
In 1993, at the age of 25, Elaine was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. We realized fairly quickly that we would have to move back to Massachusetts. Jason Rosenfield took up a collection to help us with the move. One day, in the middle of packing our belongings, Mel called and told me to come to his office.
There was no hello when we met, and it had been a year since we had spoken. Barely looking up from his desk, looking through his thick glasses, he said, “I hear you’re quitting Hollywood. Can’t take it anymore?”
He seemed to know why I was really leaving and I told him about Elaine. He tried to convince me that I wouldn’t find any film or TV work in Massachusetts and I was just going to go broke.
“Well even if I end up working at Blockbuster, I can always say I was here and I worked for some of my idols,” I told him, “besides, I don’t plan on working for a while. Elaine’s chances aren’t very good.”
Then I saw Mel do something I doubt few people had ever seen. He wiped away a tear. And said something I have never forgotten.
“This kind if thing shouldn’t happen to people like you. Young people deserve a happy ever after.”
He then held out a piece of paper, a check, in the amount of $5000.
“Don’t call me to say how she is doing. Do what you need to do. Call me next time you get back to LA.”
There was a sudden emotional awkwardness between us. Emotional for me, awkward for him. He straightened up, scanned the room, pointed and said, “Why don’t you take that VCR too. I don’t know how to work that thing.”
I shook his hand and said goodbye.
Elaine survived for a year and a half. After she died, I got a job at Avid in Massachusetts. I would edit short films on the side and eventually one of them led to an offer to return to Los Angeles to edit another piece-of-shit low budget feature.
I was here for about 8 months when I decided to attend a documentary screening that was hosted by the filmmakers and moderated by Mel Stuart. I hadn’t seen him in 4 years.
I found a seat fairly close to the stage. Mel took to the stage to make his introductory remarks about the importance of documentary and a resurgence that he envisioned was about to come (he was right). He suddenly noticed me sitting in the second row and in mid-sentence yelled –
“Who the fuck let YOU into the room??!!”
It was nice to be back.
Edited by - noncentz on 11/08/2012 05:50:48