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In my last blog, prolific writer Ross Smith was plugging his new book See You at the Premiere: Life at the Arse End of Showbiz, a very much warts-and-all look at the realities of working in or trying to get to work in showbiz.
But, as he said, it is far more than a How To… book because – as Ross has done it all (under several pen names) – he has more than a few anecdotes he shares and some realistic views on fame:
ROSS: Brad Pitt is a movie star. But Brad Pitt knows – as does every movie star – that really, basically, he’s just an actor who got lucky.
Being talented ain’t no big deal.
Being lucky IS.
JOHN: Everything is random… You told me you wrote four film scripts with director Jim Groom and his business partner Tim Tennison but only one got made – Revenge of Billy The Kid (under the pen name Richard Mathews). That’s actually a pretty good average.
ROSS: Jim and Tim ran a successful film business. They used to get visits from one of their clients, Michael, who ran a film distribution company with his dad Martin.
Michael once said to his dad Martin: “I’ve seen this film at the London Film Festival called Assault on Precinct 13. It’s done nothing in America. No-one went to see it there. But it’s really well-made; I think we should release it. So Michael and Martin’s company released it in the UK and the public and the critics started wetting their pants over it and its director John Carpenter.
Back in Hollywood, the powers-that-be said to John Carpenter: “We know your last film Assault on Precinct 13 did nothing, but what else have you got?”
He told them: “I’ve got this horror film idea about this killer who stalks babysitters, set on Halloween.”
“OK,” they said, “so what’s the name of the killer?”
In the script, he was just called ‘The Shape’.
And John Carpenter said: “Well, there’s an English guy who has made me a big success over there, which is why we’re having this meeting now. His name’s Michael Myers. We could call the killer Michael Myers.”
And Michael Myers – the original – used to come down to see Jim and Tim when we were making Revenge of Billy The Kid.
JOHN: You can never tell what leads on to what…
ROSS: Jim Groom and I were trying to resurrect Room 36, a movie we’d made which hadn’t quite worked and it was only two-thirds finished. It sat on the shelf for years.
So we thought: Why don’t we – Roger Corman style – find a part for someone famous who can come in for a couple of days? We can get them to do interviews when the film is released.
We didn’t have the kind of money to hire Michael Caine (LAUGHS), so we got Brian Murphy in – he’s a real gentleman. He played George in the ITV sitcom George and Mildred.
We had to find a hotel to shoot in for a weekend. We looked around Bayswater and went into this hotel and an Arab guy ran it. That’s really important. An Arab guy ran it.
We said: “Could we film here and we’ll give you so-much a day? We haven’t got much money.”
He said: “No, my friend, this is hotel. This is not Hollywood. Please go.”
Jim was really keen. The hotel was perfect.
So I’m doing everything to try and convince this Arab guy to let us film in the lobby.
“We won’t disturb people,” I said. “We’ll stop whenever you want us to stop. We’ll do certain hours every day and it’s for just two or three days.”
“No, my friend.,” the guy said. “Please, you must go.”
So we get to the door and Jim turns and says: “But it has George out of George and Mildred in it!”
I think to myself: For fuck sake!
There’s a pause, then the guy goes: “George and Mildred? GEORGE AND MILDRED is coming to my hotel? You are filming with GEORGE AND MILDRED?”
Jim says: “Back off! Mildred’s not coming. She’s been dead for 20 years. But, yeah, Brian Murphy, the guy who played George, he will be coming, yeah… For a couple of days.”
And this guy shouts something in Arabic and this other guy pops his head out from the office and says: “George and Mildred? GEORGE AND MILDRED?”
Next thing we know, we’re sitting there and he’s got all these sweet teas and jelly cakes out and we closed the deal.
As we walked out, I said to Jim: “Did that just happen?” And he says: “I think it did!”
I told Brian about this when we were filming and two things happened.
One, he said: “Oh, I had my mate once phone me up from Havana in Cuba saying: I’m in a bar and guess what – they’re all watching George & Mildred on TV.”
Also, when we were actually filming, this Chinese girl – a backpacker – recognised Brian and comes up to me and says: “Can I get autograph?” So, between breaks, he signed the autograph and he is such a gentleman he said to her: “I’m on my tea break now, do you want to join me?” and they’re sitting having tea together and you can see she’s thinking: “It’s George – GEORGE out of George and Mildred!!!”
JOHN: Fame is a strange thing. I saw Four Weddings and a Funeral in Prague when it was released. There’s a short sequence in which Rowan Atkinson appears as a vicar and, as soon as he came on screen, there was this massive Whhoooaaah! from the Czech audience. It’s a Czech audience. But Rowan Atkinson, as Mr Bean – he’s a massive, massive worldwide star.
Today a 24-year-old might or might not know who Benny Hill is. But he was – worldwide – the biggest British star since Charlie Chaplin. Maybe bigger.
ROSS: I’m always interested that Thames Television got very pious and said: Benny Hill’s shows? They’re sexist. We don’t agree with this any more. But it didn’t stop them fucking selling the rights – and the DVDs – all round the world. They were making tens of millions off the back of Benny Hill.
JOHN: I read that Chinese state television interrupted their transmission with a newsflash to announce Benny Hill had died.
ROSS: I never met Benny Hill, but I’ve met Stephen Spielberg, Michael Jackson, Michael Myers and George out of George & Mildred…
JOHN: You’ve met all the biggies! You coulda been a film star!
ROSS: Well, in Room 36, I’m actually George out of George and Mildred’s body-double. Room 36 took years and years to finish – we had to do a lot of pick-ups.
I write about this in the book. It’s always a good idea to have lots of cutaways.
JOHN: I was always keen on shots of pigeons looking down from ledges on nearby buildings.
ROSS: We did lots of cutaways to help with the editing and shot lots of parts of Brian’s body. You can see my legs in his dressing gown.
And there was one bit with the leading actor where we had to work out a way to fire a gun and blow off his willy.
JOHN: Did he have clothes on?
JOHN: That helps.
ROSS: Anyway, the heroine pulls a gun and shoots him in the bollocks… In the book, I go into detail about how we did it, but the bottom line is the bollocks that get blown off are actually mine.
We did it with compressed air, a fire extinguisher and mashed-up food.
The hand that fires the gun – which was filmed about six months later – was also mine.
So I actually blow my own bollocks off.
JOHN: Do you have a picture of the bollocks?