The reality of 'Hollywood Dreams'

Mason City Globe Gazette
Disk Schinnow
Sunday, January 2, 2005

North Iowan reports on his inside look at film-making

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dick Schinnow of Rock Falls, Iowa, an adjunct writing instructor at North Iowa Area Community College, is a long-time friend of Tanna Frederick's family. When Frederick landed the lead role in the movie "Hollywood Dreams," it led to a small role for Schinnow, who wrote this first-hand account of the filming.

Tanna Frederick, a 1995 graduate of Mason City High School, is fulfilling a dream - she is starring in a Hollywood movie.

Oh, she's been in a couple movies, but those were small parts. In this one, titled "Hollywood Dream," Tanna shares the lead with Justin Kirk, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his role in Mike Nichols' film of "Angels in America." A strong ensemble cast surrounds them.

Frederick's connection to this film is its director, Henry Jaglom, who is famed in Hollywood for the 13 independent films he's made over the last 30 or so years.

They met a few years ago and Jaglom became her mentor. Last year Tanna led the effort to revive an early play of Jaglom's "A Safe Place," and starred in it to rave reviews in the Los Angeles' newspapers and trade publications.

"Hollywood Dreams" is about Margie Chizek, a young woman from Iowa who goes to Hollywood with aspirations to become a star. Not only has Jaglom based much of his story on his young actress, he has also incorporated numerous references to Mason City into its dialogue.

About a month before shooting began, I received an e-mail offering me a small part in the movie and an opportunity to see how "Hollywood Dreams" is made. I took a couple seconds to think it over before replying that I'd do it.

Hollywood

When I arrive in Los Angeles, I meet Tanna and her director for lunch. Tanna is thinner than I've ever seen her - camera thin, I call it - because the camera adds weight here and there. It occurs to me that if I actually do get on screen, I'm going to look like Dumbo.

My part in the movie is to be Leon, one of two butlers, but as we talk and the director learns more about me, he and Tanna begin to bounce ideas off one another and a new character is created for me - a professor from Iowa who has written a novel that has been optioned for a movie.

As we part, Tanna gives me a hug and a 130-page outline of the film which Jaglom uses instead of a script because it gives him the flexibility his technique requires.

The Set

My first day with an actual movie begins by driving to base camp, a parking lot just off Interstate 405, from which we are ferried by van up into the hills to a large house where shooting takes place. It is on a cul de sac which is already crowded with a generator truck, two trailers, and assorted other vehicles. The double garage is crowded with lights and other gear which overflows onto the patio.

The house is what most of us think of as pure Hollywood. Its most spectacular feature is the long, stone patio that runs the length of the house beyond which lies a stunning vista of the San Fernando Valley.

At around $2 million, this is a low-budget movie by Hollywood standards where a star like Julia Roberts gets $15 million just to show up - but it looks pretty elaborate to me.

When I look at the call sheet that the assistant director gives us, I count 26 people who are involved in some aspect of the shooting plus the 15 actors who are required to be on the set today. Besides these folks, others are involved with the office work, catering services, or driving the 11 vehicles the production requires. Like a number of other actors, I am being paid the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) minimum of $1,620 for the few days I'm putting in.

Shooting begins at 1 p.m. and ends nine hours later and Tanna works in every scene. This may be her first big role, but there isn't a hint of indecisiveness about any thing she does. Every line and every expression is consistently on the mark, even when there are multiple takes. Although Jaglom often coaches or cajoles others involved in the scene, he seldom tinkers with anything she does. They're worked on the outline together, and it's clear they share a vision of how these scenes are supposed to look on the screen.

I sit or stand behind the camera set-up or off to the side, watching the proceedings and the TV monitor attached to the camera through which the director can observe the composition and movement of the shot. They shoot on the patio until after sunset, and I'm amazed that they can keep working with so little available natural light, but they go on until it's almost dark and getting cold.

Around 5 p.m. we break for "lunch" which is catered to tables set up in the driveway of an adjacent house.

The most involved scene of the night takes place in the spacious living room and involves eight actors and requires 11 takes and there is some fraying of emotions, but Jaglom keeps after what he wants, insisting and insisting until an actor gives it to him. Even late in the evening, there isn't the slightest reduction in his intensity or attention to detail. Except for lunch, he's the only person who hasn't had a moment break, but eight hours later he's going as strong as he was when the day began.

The moment

Yesterday Jaglom told me I'd be doing something onscreen today, and my nervousness woke me this morning at 6:30.

I get to the set at 2 p.m. and sit around until almost 9 p.m. when Jaglom calls me forward from the edge of the set into the lights. The butterflies in my stomach all take flight. I have just watched Melissa Leo ("21 Grams"), who plays Bee, Margie's aunt from Iowa, and veteran actress Karen Black, who plays Luna, a disdainful Hollywood drama coach, do a wonderful, mostly improvised scene together.

Now, without prior notice, the director wants Black and me to do a scene in which my character, Leon, the theater professor from Iowa, is ridiculed by Black's character for not training Margie effectively for the movies. It takes place at a party, so each of us holds a glass of wine and stands only inches from the other.

"Now Karen is going to say this to you, and then we'll see what you come up with," Jaglom says. This might seem cruel to some, possibly an embarrassing set-up for me, but I know that it isn't. It reflects his confidence that I will come up with something that will work, the same confidence I've seen him demonstrate with others so many times.

It is a good scene for me, because I know how I would react if someone were to deride Iowa, to put down the training that Margie would have gotten at the University of Iowa, the same university, I chide Luna, that Tennessee Williams attended back in the '40s, the university famed for its Writers' Workshop. My reply to her is forceful and natural and the director tell us that he likes it a lot.

In the next scene Tanna delivers a beautiful long explanation of Margie's hopes and dreams of becoming a famous actress. Then, the director yells cut and turns to those of us who are watching with a pleased smile. It is almost 10 p.m. but the night has ended on a crescendo that sends the actors energized and babbling out to the waiting vans.

Actors

The next day I hang around the set, watching, and occasionally getting into a conversation with the other actors. Since they don't know that I am essentially an imposter, they chat easily about the movie at hand or others that I've seen them in.

Karen Black, who I first saw in "Easy Rider" in 1969, is just as exotic as I had expected, and David Proval is so physically Richie Aprile, the character he played on "The Sopranos," that I can't disconnect him from that role.

When I talk with Justin Kirk, who is playing Margie's love interest, I find that he is from Minneapolis. There is a deep quietness about him that I can't help but like.

Later in the afternoon Eric Roberts and his wife come in. No written dialogue exists for Roberts, so Jaglom is improvising, again. Roberts asks a number of questions as he tries to get a grasp of his character, but the director gives him as little as possible to keep the sense of his character being a newcomer to the action of the film.

When the scene finally begins, Roberts launches into a long, completely unrehearsed bit that Margie breaks in to with comments about Iowa, pigs, and her Grandmother Chizek. It is so convincing that I wince with embarrassment. When the actor leaves a few hours later, the crew claps, apparently in homage to his star status.

In the evening we are shooting a party scene for which an elaborate table with real food is set. While the scene is being prepared, Tanna emerges from the dressing room in one beautiful dress after another which the director emphatically does not approve of. Finally, with the fifth selection, he is happy - effusively so - so they can go ahead with the scene. It leaves me wondering just how many dresses they had available back there for this particular scene.

It's a wrap

The last evening we work until midnight. Although I have no scenes, I wait around, still enjoying the experience, chatting between takes with one or another of the 20 or so people I'm on a first-name basis with. In the last hour or so, I can see the actor's weariness.

Then, finally, the last shot of the movie is completed, and the actors who still remain begin to leave, a band of gypsies scattering into the glittering Los Angeles night, some to new roles, some to uncertainty, some on the way up, some on the way down.

For me, it's back to Iowa and the reassuring predictability of my "real" life. Jaglom has promised that we will have a local premiere of the movie in Mason City, and I'm looking forward to it. I can't wait to see and hear how all of the work that went into "Hollywood Dreams" will come together on the big screen.