In 1963 at age 14, a series came on ABC called "Your Funny, Funny Films" hosted by George Fenneman that aired viewers 8mm movies. My cousin and I decided to make a film for the show. That was the event that sparked my interest in filmmaking. We never completed our film in time to submit it, but the flame was lit.
A couple of years later, I was determined to learn how movies and TV shows were really made in a real studio. I wrote the producers and stars of several TV shows I liked, asking if I could visit the set and see the process first-hand. Kindly, the producers of "The John Forsythe Show" at Universal wrote back and made arrangements for me and two friends to visit the studio. Hollywood, long known as a fortress designed to keep people out, opened up this one day to three kids who just wanted to learn to make movies. On that day, I met director Earl Bellamy, whom I remained in touch with until his death a few years ago. He explained what they were doing as they shot each scene. John Forsythe took time
out to explain some points about lighting. Earl sent us over to another stage where they were shooting "McHale's Navy" to watch them in action. Lunch at the studio commissary and another five hours had us heading home at 6 PM. I can clearly remember that wonderful experience to this day.
By the end of my junior year in high school, I had collected together friends and we decided to make a movie. We wrote a script and started shooting. I wanted people to know about what we were up to, so I sent press releases to all the newspapers. Much to my surprise, The Los Angeles Times showed up, took some pictures and asked some questions. Two weeks later, unknown to me at the time, our picture and story appeared as the lead article in the Calendar section. I was in English class and was summoned to the Vice Principal's office. Surely I was going to be punished for some unknown crime I had committed. She sat me down and simply said, "Don, The Dean Martin Show" wants you." "What?" I said. The producers had called the school and wanted to speak to me. She had me call them back from her office. I spoke with Paul W. Keyes, producer and head writer for Dean Martin's show and he said he saw the article in the paper and would I be interested in making a film for Dean's summer show. He cautioned me not to answer right then, but to meet with friends and decide together. We did, said yes (of course) and went to Paul's office to sign our "contract" and get started. In a world filling up with long-haired hippies, we were clean-cut, nice young people. We were very appealing to the staunch Repulican that was Paul W. Keyes (he later went on to become Richard Nixon's head speechwriter). My senior semester in high school was spent going to NBC three days a week to work on the script for our little film. We met each time with Paul and writer/commedians Pat McCormick and Jack Riley. Of course, I had no idea who they were. All I knew was that I was a kid in high school spending my afternoons at NBC laughing non-stop and having the time of my life. It was an amazing experience. We made the film but it never aired due to a network strike.
Following high school I moved north about 175 miles to the town of Santa Maria, CA where I started college. At the end of the first year, I needed a summer job. A high school friend told me he could get me a summer job working for Standard Oil, but I'd need to come to Los Angeles. I did. No job. I looked up Earl Bellamy and he was shooting "The Mod Squad" at Paramount. I visited him on the set and he suggested I go to personnel to see if there were any openings on the lot. I showed up on their doorstep for 9 days in a row. The head of personnel apologized and said they just didn't have anything and then said, "Wait a minute." She mad a call and then send me over to see Lester Goldsmith, head of the Story Department. I talked to him and he called Earl. All he said to me was, "You've got quite a champion in Mr. Bellamy." I was hired as the file clerk for a whopping $80 a week. I was in heaven!
My job was to retrieve and re-file synopses on any of the more than 8 million stories they kept in row after row of filing cabinets in a huge room that was once the studio photo lab. We were always finding photos stuck here and there. Unretouched portraits of a very young Elvis Presley, stills from Paramount movies best left forgotten, like "L'il Abner."
Sometimes I read some of the synopses, but I didn't really understand what I was reading. I delivered
script changes to the set of many movies in production and to front office executives. The studio was very busy at the time. I do recall a few things:
A memo from the front office in the mid-fifties questioned the sanity of the producer who wanted to make this sappy movie, considering it was going to be shot in their new and very expensive VistaVision process and shouldn't the producer get a BIG star to play the lead rather than some singer and that title song was just too slow and boring. He doubted the picture would make any money. The picture was "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby.
I confess here and now that I "borrowed" a few scripts from the studio vault. It had two remaining copies of "Sunset Boulevard" filed there. Now it has one copy. I purloined a copy of the script from "The Ten Commandments" as a classic blockbuster of the era, and a few others.
I delivered a script to the offices of Gene Roddenberry just as he was packing up to move out after "Star Trek" had been cancelled. All of the scripts from the entire "Star Trek" series were piled in a heap on the floor in the middle of the office. I asked if I could have one and the secretary told me to help myself. I should have taken them all, but I happened to grab "The Trouble With Tribbles" which became one of the most sought after scripts from the show years later.
I was drafted and sent to Vetnam. Certainly I was the only soldier in the region who got The Hollywood Reporter in his mail from home. Earl Bellamy wrote letters about shows he was directing and kept me up to date. I acquired some white reflective and dull black paint and painted a new wide format movie screen to show the troop movies on. I horse-traded a second projector so our movies ran without a break in the middle to reload. After that triumph, I worked to get a bar for the troops built on our compound, for which I received a medal.
Yes, I had hoped to return to my job at Paramount, but when I got there, my job was gone, so my plans changed significantly.
Earl Bellamy suggested I apply for a job as a tour guide at Universal Studios. I was hired and I loved the job. It was hard work and fun, but I didn't want to make it my life's work.
The top tour guides got a "perk" of sorts in that they were allowed to conduct what were called "VIP Tours." This was not part of our job description, but it was nice because you got out of the regular tour rat-race. VIP tours were for guests of the studio execs. We'd pick them up, take them to a sound stage where they could see something shooting, meet the stars and then they'd get a condensed tour of the backlot special effects. Usually, this tour was for 2-6 people and they were carried about in a special trolley car for this purpose.
One day, I had three groups, totalling nearly a dozen people. There was this woman I was to pick up who's pick-up point kept changing. In the shuffle, she was overlooked and the tour was especially good that time. Unfortunately for me, she was a friend of Sid Sheinberg, the single largest shareholder in MCA, Universal's parent company. He got pissed and ordered me fired. My job was over before I got back to the tour dispatch office. Since I was out of a job, I went to the casting office and they told me to get some pictures of myself. A few days later I had them and the next day I was cast as an extra in "Get Christie Love." The studio tours offered my job back because the union threatened to sue, but I
elected to continue acting.
I worked in a bit on the first episode of "Quincy, M.E." where Jack Klugman throws back the sheet and says, "Welcome to the world of forensic medicine." That's me, the fainting cop second from the far end in the opening credits of Quincy for the next 9 years. It was a great job -- I worked 15 minutes, fainted twice and got paid a bundle:
A miniscule acting career to be sure. I couldn't seem to get beyond a "fiver" (5 lines or less). Still, I appeared in 43 TV shows, 7 movies and 5 TV commercials. Then, I decided that it might be better to work behind the camera, rather than in front of it. I decided to become a makeup artist.
In the mid-1970s, Michael Westmore taught make-up for a very short time at Pierce College in Los Angeles. I think there was some connection to him teaching and a makeup book he was writing because he only taught to one or two years.
My makeup career was short-lived because I couldn't get into the union, so it was very hard to get make-up jobs. At the time, the entire make-up and hairdresser union roster consisted of about 160
people. That's a pretty small market.
I worked on anything I could ... student films, religious films, non-union low budget films, local commercials. I did a number of films for The Franciscan Communications Center, a little studio in the middle of the Los Angeles garment district run by the Franciscan religious order. They made "message" films for themselves and other churches. Then I got my first real feature film.
"Assault on Precinct 13" was a wonderful experience. Everyone was nice and there were few problems. A few things stand out, though:
Blood. Gallons of it. The special effects guy and I sat around and made our own squibs for all of the gunshot wounds they'd be shooting.
I made a a gunshot wound for the star, Laurie Zimmer. It looked great.
We shot in November-December and it was cold and damp in Venice, CA, which is right on the ocean. I had one of the few heaters in the make-up/wardrobe trailer because make-up won't go on right when it's too cold. Outside on the set, I wore a parka. Co-star Tony Burton was a brave man through it all, climbing up out of a sewer, shimmering and sweating in the night. I sprayed him down often with a mixture of glycerine and water to re-apply the sweat, usually with an apology. He never said a word, bless him.
One of the supporting cast was a soap actor who played the father of the little girl, played by Kim Richards. One day on location, he showed up hung over and already made up in his "soap make-up" -- bright pink. I had to remove the make-up, put drops in his eyes to make the white of his eyes white again, all the while reassuring him everything was going to be just fine. I think it was his last day of shooting.
Certainly it was obvious that it wasn't a big studio picture, but I've worked on far smaller films. They spent their money wisely -- on the screen where it counts and they took very good care of the cast and crew. I recall we were very well fed, which matters. People will even work for free, but not if they're hungry.
Without a doubt John Carpenter is the most organized director I've ever had the pleasure to work with. He knows every shot he wants before he arrives on the set. I can't tell you what a blessing that is. Everyone is ready, we all know what the next shot is going to be and we can all be prepared. Shooting goes much faster and there's a real feeling of accomplishment that things are getting done. He's very quiet when he works and there was a sense that everyone always wanted to do their very best for him.
I remember that he treated everyone with the same respect as he would the producer. I think people love to work with him because of that.
Wanting a better income, I worked in the computer industry for the next 25 years. I wrote my first screenplay in 1995.
Around 1997, I bought Scriptware, then the prevalent screenwriting software and still a favorite of mine. The vendor of the software was not had an update in nearly 5 years, which concerns me. I added Movie Magic Screenwriter about 2 years ago and now I use both programs. I have installed Scriptware on my Ubuntu Linux machine under WINE and it runs fine. Movie Magic Screenwriter cannot install under Linux/WINE because of its copy protection scheme.
I discovered people needed help getting their scripts properly formatted, so in 1999 I decided to offer a low-cost formatting service to aspiring writers and Script Nurse.
The biggest blunders I read in scripts are:
1. Incorrect formatting.
2. Bad grammar and incorrect word usage.
3. Passive voice writing.
4. Starting scenes too soon.
5. Wordy dialogue.
6. Weak, trite stories.
If someone is writing their first script, it's not necessary to purchase professional screenwriting software, but it's a great help to not have to worry about the formatting issues so the writer can concentrate on the story. It's ALL about the story.