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"The Warriors." New York City. Spring of 1978. I'd been bumped up from p.a. (production assistant) to locations scout, and I finally got my own car. No more surly teamsters.
Assignment: Find a bathroom for the subway brawl between the Warriors and the Punks. ASAP.
So I hit every high school, every seedy hotel, every YMCA, hospital, movie theater and public park from the Village to the Bronx and from Queens to Hell's Kitchen. I'd double-park, rush up with Polaroid camera in hand, find the bathroom, hold my breath and step in to check if the layout was right.
(And who said movie work wasn't glamorous?)
Pity the poor bastard just looking for a few moments of peace and quiet in there, reading the sports section. Suddenly there's this lunatic shouting over the stalls.
"Hey, everybody, I work for Paramount. We're making a movie! So just sit tight and keep the doors closed while I take some pictures, all right?"
"Uh ...you know, movie, uh, cinema ... ?"
Until finally, I just started walking in and shooting -- boom boom boom boom boom. Five quick shots, doing the panorama. Then I'd run back out to the car, where I'd tape them together and rush them over to that day's location, looking to catch the director, Walter Hill, at a good moment so I could present my latest discovery.
"Too small," he'd say.
And I'd spin on my heel and head back into the teeming fray.
"Too many windows."
"Not enough windows."
This went on for three grueling days, and I could tell that Walter was taking great delight in my increasing frustration.
Finally, I worked up my nerve and said, "Are you f------ with me?"
"Not you. Paramount."
"I'm gonna make 'em build me a bathroom."
Ah. So this is how it's done. Paramount was tightening the purse strings and Walter was fighting back (in classic passive-aggressive style). I was just a flunky stuck in the middle.
I called Walter a couple days ago to reminisce. He said, "You know, by them not giving me more money to make that movie, I think it turned out better. There's a simple quality to it that I would've missed with a bigger budget."
Here's another example: John Landis directs one of the funniest movies ever, "Animal House," for like three dollars and 11 cents. I mean, that was low low budget. And it turned out sloppy and gutsy and raunchy and full of energy and became a huge hit.
Two years later, he makes "The Blues Brothers." And, of course, he's riding high, and Universal's throwing a lot of money at him, and he takes a pretty cool, funkadelic scenario and screws it up with endless car crashes that take you right out of the movie. Why'd he do it? Because he had too much money.
Not my problem with "94 Feet of Hell." This is the college basketball movie that I've been writing about -- the story of one game.
Over 30 million people watch the NCAA championship every March. That's my audience. But I don't expect they'll all be willing to spend eight bucks at a movie theater, so I'm determined to make "94 Feet" lean and mean.
One of the biggest expenses in shooting a sports movie is the extras. All those people in the stands.
I've got to find the perfect arena (locations again) -- small enough to fill without breaking the bank, but big enough to look real deal.
Faced with a similar challenge, Billy Friedkin had a stroke of genius on "Blue Chips."
Let's see, can I recreate the moment without self-inducing a paranoid paroxysm of putrid pustules?
In a production trailer on the Paramount lot. My buddy K.B. and I were working the phones, wrangling the basketball players. Shaq had already signed on. I was chasing down Chris Webber (who was being repped by his aunt), while K.B. was chasing Penny Hardaway.
I failed. K.B. succeeded. And Shaq and Penny ended up getting tight during rehearsals.
(For all you Magic fans who died when you heard that Orlando was trading the studly Webber for the softie Hardaway ... blame K.B.)
Anyway, Friedkin comes storming into the packed production trailer and we all duck, because with Billy, you never know when he's gonna go off. But now, he's exultant.
"We're goin' to Indiana. F--- this extra sh--! We'll make them pay!"
And we did. The locations guy found the perfect 6,000-seat high school arena in Frankfort, Indiana; and for two straight days, those good citizens of the Hoosier state PAID to be extras.
Three bucks a ticket. A stroke of genius.
It didn't hurt that Friedkin was tight with Bobby Knight, and Knight had agreed to bring in a bunch of his former players for two key games.
Friedkin and Knight. Between the two of them, they had cornered the market on the world's supply of venom. Plus, they liked to mix it up, these two.
Let's see ... uh, "Godzilla vs. Rodan." Nah.
"Frankenstein vs. Dracula." Closer.
"Alien vs. Predator." Now we're getting somewhere ...
A sports agent named Mike Higgins (worked for David Falk) told me about a night out at a Bloomington restaurant when Friedkin and Knight started trading insults. It was a homosexual theme, as Mike recalled, and it got nastier and nastier -- snarling, virtually spitting at each other, the whole restaurant going silent, and Mike slowly sliding under the table thinking, "Jesus, H., is this for real?"
Until finally these two grown men, giants in their respective fields, burst into laughter.
And the good church-going people of Indiana laughed with them.
"Freddy vs. Jason." That's it, with a dash of "Chucky" thrown in.
Make the extras pay. Can I pull this off? We'll see. Certainly not in Southern California.
Meanwhile, I grab breakfast with Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump") to talk about the script.
"The key is to show the game you don't see as a spectator. The words you don't hear."
An inside look. That's what I've written. Of course, it needs some tweaking; but if there's one thing I've learned about writing, it's this: Don't let people pull you in too many directions.
I'm not real big on all these technique books and seminars; but as long as I'm lurching about (and in response to a number of e-mail inquiries), here are a few tricks of the writing trade.
First (and in the words of Jim Rome, no less): "Have a take; don't suck."
Second: "Make sure something interesting happens every 10 pages."
Third, from the crime novelist Elmore Leonard ("Get Shorty," "Out of Sight"): "Leave out the parts everyone's gonna skip over."
Anyone still with me?
Look, who wouldn't want to be a writer? You get to set your own hours, imbibe at will, and say what other people only think.
More advice ...
Learn a trade where you can work in bursts. Me, I became a carpenter and then a movie production guy. (My father is rolling in his grave. "For this I paid how much tuition?")
Or better yet, shack up with someone with a steady income. For further instructions, go to the archives at Salon.com and search out, "She Wins Bread, He Loafs." But don't tell my mother-in-law.
And most importantly, develop a thick skin.
After I finished my first screenplay (which I was convinced was an absolute work of genius), I approached this writer I'd met, Malcolm Braly, and asked him to give it a read.
Malcolm (R.I.P) was a middle-aged ex-con who'd written a solid novel called "On The Yard," which later got made into a movie that coincidentally starred one of the Warriors, Thomas Waites.
Malcolm split his time between CBGBs in lower Manhattan and the Catskills, where he was hanging out in a farmhouse with a bunch of slinky women (with snake tattoos running up their thighs) and pot-smoking, wine-guzzling, long-haired tough guys, most of whom had been in 'Nam or the joint and weren't quite ready to get with the program.
Malcolm was a sweetheart of a guy, though. He read my first screenplay, sat me down and said, "At least now we know you're not a genius."
Hey, man, I asked for it. Thick skin.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, New York City, 1978.
So Paramount finally agreed to build Walter's bathroom. Most of the other locations had been secured, and I was free to hang around the set.
I knew Walter was a sports junkie, so I let him know that I'd played some college hoops. He liked that. He also liked (for some odd reason) that I'd led the Ivy League in fouls.
And one day, he asked me, "How tough are you?"
"Uh ... I don't know," I said.
Wrong answer. When someone asks you how tough you are, the answer is, "Tough enough."
"No, really," said Walter. "Can you handle yourself? Can you handle a bat fight?"
"We lost one of our stuntmen. Baseball Fury. You wanna be in my movie?"
NEXT: SWAN VS. RYDER IN A LOUISVILLE SLUGFEST
Rob Ryder played basketball at Princeton and works as a screenwriter and sports advisor in Hollywood. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ryder: Dreams of distribution
Ryder: Pressure points
Ryder: White Men Can't Pedal
Ryder: Can Hollywood handle the truth?
Ryder: Shooting bowling balls
Ryder: Air Ainge?
Ryder: Rays of hope
Ryder: The LeBron Project
Ryder: Playing the Hollywood game
Ryder: Playing the Hollywood game