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By Richard Walter · May 1, 2019
At USC Film School during the ‘60s—and perhaps even more at UCLA—student films generally shied away from ‘narrative.’ That is to say, for the most part they did not try to tell stories. To attempt to recount a story was considered (particularly by bitter, creatively and professionally unfulfilled faculty) to be ‘too Hollywood.’
Favored films were either documentaries or ‘filmic’ tone poems, story-eschewing exercises heavily featuring image, tone, texture, and mood. ‘Mood,’ as I routinely told my Westwood writing warriors, is ‘doom’ spelt backwards. The word ‘filmic,’ director Mike Nichols famously said, should be used only when one Irish projectionist asks another, “Did you bring the film, Mick?” Even George’s seminal student film, THX 1138 4EB, was more texture than tale.
His student film was stunning and certainly memorable – here I am writing about it more than a half-century later. The film consisted entirely of images of oil wells, especially those pumps that rock up and back, looking not a little like ungainly metal birds pecking perpetually at the earth. The film’s soundtrack carried the mechanical rhythm section, the thrum created by the rigs’ thunderous binging, and banging, clanking and clunking machinery. Its running time was three or four minutes. Far from mocking and scorning Don’s accomplishment, I am here to tell you that in my view it was an engaging, authentic work of film (if not filmic) art. Still, it struck me even way back then that there is no sin or scandal in trying to tell a story.
A USC film classmate who clearly shared that sentiment was Willard Huyck. Back then, Willard was considered a goofy, overly formal, out-of-fashion name, so Willard called himself Bill. Another of our classmates, Basil Poledouris, similarly called himself Bill. Eventually, both ‘Bills’ reclaimed the original names on their birth certificates.
(What can a guy with a name like Basil Poledouris be other than what he became: a vastly successful composer of sprawling orchestral scores for movies? For a number of years, Basil and I were neighbors in Echo Park, and pretty good pals, until his untimely death now nearly ten years ago.)
Here is a movie that, to this day, remains among my favorite all time (and not merely ‘student’) films. It runs all of perhaps six or eight or ten minutes in searing, scorching black and white. In Down These Mean Streets, actors actually recite dialogue written for them by a writer or writers–Willard and possibly also his then-girlfriend and eventual wife and writing partner Gloria Katz. Gloria was a student not at USC but cross-town rival UCLA. She and Willard met at a lecture by low-budget film schlockmeister, the rightly venerated Roger Corman.
Down These Mean Streets starred an actual working actor, Paul Comi who, at the time of this writing, died only within the last two years. He plays a man who, along with his wife, drives to fetch his retired father, a former private eye, who has escaped from an assisted living facility.
In those days it appeared that most USC films were shot on freeways; the UCLA films, for the most part, seemed to be set at the beach. As indicated, some of Willard’s movie was actually filmed on a sound stage with actors reciting synched dialogue, routine practice at the studios but virtually unheard of among student films.
At one point, for example, there is in an interior nighttime shot set within the purportedly traveling car, when clearly the vehicle is standing still on a soundstage floor, physically rocked like a cradle by two members of the crew, in a crude yet effective effort to suggest motion. The wife says, paraphrasing, “It’s so quiet and still; it feels like we’re hardly moving at all.”
To this day I remember that line earning a robust hoot from the student/faculty audience in Cine #108, USC’s main screening room just off the patio. My favorite line, though, occurs at a point that Comi’s character, the protagonist son, bruises his thumb, muttering “Ouch!” His father looks up at him and asks, after a heavy beat, “Want a bullet to bite on?”
It was a unit of Universal Studios, and it became something of a USC film school mafia, as I have mentioned earlier. We were a band of long-haired, ragged, tie-dye/paisley-clad military draft-avoiding hippies creating propaganda films for banks, oil companies, and other enormous corporations, also the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and even the U.S. Army and Air Force. I’ve already mentioned that our cameraman was legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
For a while our editor was Gloria Katz Huyck, who passed in late November 2018. I recall on her first day our boss, director Bruce Green, asking her to ‘synch the dailies.’ Gloria said she’d be happy to do so, but before engaging the task she had two questions: 1) What is ‘synch?’ and 2) What are ‘dailies?’
They also are credited, along with George, for writing American Graffiti, which won them an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. After that, they wrote much of Star Wars. Though they received no credit for that picture, they were richly rewarded financially.
They became for a while the hottest writers in Hollywood, selling a spec script for $400,000 in late Richard Nixon dollars, the equivalent of today’s five million bucks. It was at that time the largest fee ever paid for an original screenplay. Lucky Lady was directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) and starred two of the most bankable, in-demand superstar actors of the era: Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli. At the box office, it sank like a stone.
Thereafter, they worked as a writing/directing/producing team, co-writing their movies, which were directed by Willard, and produced by Gloria. They went on to co-write, direct, and produce among other films French Postcards and Best Defense. The latter starred Eddie Murphy. In sorry testimony to his discredit and lack of collegiality, upon its release, Murphy rudely and crudely denounced the film in the press.
They wrote an original television movie-of-the-week about a teacher, with the protagonist portrayed by Michael McKean. It was intended as a pilot for a series, but was not picked up. About the only work since …Graffiti for which they received public attention was the stunning international debacle, Howard the Duck, produced by erstwhile mate George Lucas. Howard… was released in Japan with ads proclaiming “George Lucas presents a new kind of hero.” Japanese audiences are legendary for their love of special effects. Not surprisingly, George Lucas was a towering figure, an authentic master. When Japanese audiences showed up for Howard…, they were outraged to discover that instead of clever effects the movie featured a guy dressed in a duck suit. Some audiences rebelled, torching and trashing theaters after screenings. I’m told it all created a rift between George and the Huycks that lasted for many years. George, confronted by critics outraged by Howard…, shrugged and asserted that he’d had nothing creatively to do with the movie.
The appearance is that he and the Huycks reconciled eventually, as George would go on to produce another movie from an old script of theirs, credited to them, George, and also a couple of additional writers, Radio Land Murders. As of the time of this writing, that was nearly a quarter century ago.
Richard Walter is a screenwriter, author of best-selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, entertainment industry expert, and Professor Emeritus and former Interim and Associate Dean at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where he chaired the graduate program in screenwriting for over forty years. Professor Walter offers an exclusive online 6-week course. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with the world’s most accomplished screenwriting educator. And, he’ll read your script if you complete it within 1 month of the class! Learn more at http://richardwalter.com/workshop/ and sign up for updates by joining Richard Walter’s email newsletter list: contact him at email@example.com.
©Richard Walter 2019
Photo credit: The Independent