Fellow Angelenos often ask me what it was like to work as an extra for controversial American auteur Henry Jaglom. He's been touted by Roger Ebert for rendering eavesdrop-honest "fictionalized documentaries," and others have labeled him arrogant and spoiled and a director of self-indulgent talkfests.
My feeling? Like many filmgoers, I bemoan Hollywood excess, and they don't come more independent in moviedom than this 60-year-old maverick. Plus, his cookies were heavenly.
Jaglom--Henry to anyone around him--not only writes, directs and often stars in what amount to homemade movies, among them "New Year's Day" (1989), "Always" (1985) and "Last Summer in the Hamptons" (1995). He finances, distributes and even four-walls (rents) a theater in Beverly Hills to show them.
Jaglom shot "Shopping" on the grounds of his own 5-acre estate in Santa Monica, using his guest house (one bedroom, one bathroom) as dressing room, and his gatehouse (two bedroom, two bathrooms) as set. I think this is what they call "creative control."
Thanks to my friend Liz Ryan, the line producer (the person who makes sure everything on the set runs smoothly), I get an audition as a day player.
How generous is Henry Jaglom? He offers me my choice of tryouts: security guard/standup, or man waiting outside a boutique. I notice that the security guard shares a scene with the leading lady, Jaglom's wife, the striking Euro-style beauty Victoria Foyt. The waiting man waits with half a dozen guys. Who wouldn't go for the security guard? Waiting man is what I get. I report for work at Rainbow Films' office in an atrium adjacent to the "big house," the crew's designation for Jaglom's living quarters. His home is a modern Spanish castle, girdled in green with willowy forest paths galore. Our location includes a pool, rose garden, English garden and playground. And so convenient for actors living in the 310!
Zero Mostel said he loved the French definition for a "comedian," one who heightens drama and enlarges life. I meet and get acquainted with the other guys in the abundant rose garden under a tall eucalyptus. I feel blessed to be in this ensemble: Charlie Matthau, director of "The Grass Harp" and other movies; Josh Malina from the much-missed "Sports Night" series; fine Brooklyn stage actor Carl Calhoun; and Richard Martini, director of "Cannes Man," a digital film about Henry Jaglom that he says gets into festivals of Dogma films (part of the European movement in which movies are shot with hand-held cameras using available light and no effects or music).
For Jaglom today, we'll be inventing our dialogue while waiting for wives or girlfriends to finish shopping. Jaglom has been making movies this way since the 1970s. For "Tracks" (1976), he had no permit, but no matter. He bought his troupe Amtrak tickets and continued filming Dennis Hopper as a paranoid vet, naked in the club car.
As an actor preparing, I watch the 1997 documentary "Who Is Henry Jaglom?" in which H. Alex Rubin and Jeremy Workman show the several levels of reality at play in a Jaglom film. Here he is in "Venice/Venice" (1992) asking a group of friends: "Is this more real because there's not a camera shooting it?" In "Babyfever" (1994), Foyt is shown pregnant, followed by home movies of their firstborn, Sabrina.
Whether it's early "reality show" chic or low-budget Narcissus biopic, Jaglom says he is on "a search for truth. There's nothing better than truth on film."
And no matter how romance-confessional or vainglory his own veracity, Jaglom maintains, "There's no such thing as too personal."
I am finding it personally friendly on the set, greeted as I am by Sabrina, 9, and her brother, Simon, 7. Simon tells me he's in three scenes, with Sabrina quickly announcing she has four.
French TV has compared Jaglom to Woody Allen and Orson Welles. He is a dictator--aren't all directors?--and the script co-written with Foyt is only 50 pages. Through editing, Jaglom will shape a movie out of our scene improvisations. They tell me in makeup that "Shopping" is part of a trilogy, following "Eating" in 1990 and "Babyfever."
"I am a feminist filmmaker," Jaglom has asserted. He is working out "his issues with women" through his movies, an actor tells me. But when I reach the set, another crew member informs me that she has watched Jaglom belittle one actress after another, bullying them relentlessly until he gets emotions and dialogue he can use.
Rebecca Davis, a sociologist appearing in the Rubin and Workman documentary, posited that Jaglom hates women. She says he is "dangerous because he professes to love women. How could a man who loves women," she argues, "portray them as insecure, unintelligent, body-obsessed, little scared creatures that need a man?"
He is a lot nicer to the guys. I'm instructed to sit on one end of a white divan in the tea garden behind the gatehouse. The gatehouse doubles as a hip boutique on Montana Avenue called Holly G. Foyt plays Holly, with Lee Grant as her mother and Mae Whitman her daughter. Rob Morrow, Bruce Davison and Joe Furey play the men in their lives in a loose plot centered on Holly's efforts to save the boutique.
In this scene, I'm reading a newspaper--using it for shade actually--and waiting. Ninety women have been on-camera talking directly to Jaglom about shopping, but we happy few are pretty much it for the males. He places us side-by-side on chairs and a loveseat.
A woman with "Blow" on her baseball cap leans in to touch up my makeup, whispering, "When you feel the camera on you, just talk. And don't stop talking until Henry tells you." Sure enough, these gentlemen in the garden commence with the ad-libbing, yapping away about women, credit cards and cars. In fact, they never let up with the extemporizing. I can't get a word in. Then again, it's my own fault. I don't feel the camera because my head is buried in a newspaper.
Finally, after an hour in a blazing sun, our sextet gets into a groove:
Matthau: This is like waiting for Godot--
Calhoun: Yeah, waiting for Lefty--
Malina: A long day's journey into night--
Martini: Crime and punishment--
Repartee intellectuale , eh? More like a bunch of guys in search of a script and something to say. But before I finish my line--a well-thought-out and at the same time spontaneous rejoinder having to do with Arthur Miller's "The Price," wherein he laments, "In America today everything is shopping!"--Jaglom cuts me off.
"What the hell are you quoting Arthur Miller for?" he demands. "Who wants to hear you do that?" Well, I want him to hear the whole quote of course, which dovetails nicely with the theme and title of a film about shopping, and I tell him how I used to work in retail in Detroit selling shoes so I certainly know whereof I--but suddenly I see the camera of director of photography Hanania Baer moving back across to Matthau, Malina and Calhoun.
The rest of the morning, Matthau, Malina and company get to talk on cell phones and complain to waitresses. I get to read the entire Times. Candice Bergen once described Jaglom as "a kamikaze intellectual," so hey, I took a shot. Was he trying to provoke me?
"A Jaglom film is basically two people in frame talking," a production assistant tells me during a film-loading break. Director Andre Gregory once said that any good dialogue he and Jaglom get shooting in "the unknown" comes from "divine accident."
Another hour of this, and I'm waiting to exhale.
Screw director divinity, it's hot, I'm hungry, and I got newspaper ink all over my summer suit. (What do you expect for a $2-million picture, wardrobe?)
Are all movies made when everyone is hot and tired?
As elegant as the day's setting is our gourmet lunch of filet mignon, pasta Alfredo, and chicken Dijon. My bad actor mood has brightened, and the crew is abuzz with last-day-of-shooting esprit de corps. We're on a sloping spread of meadow tucked among shady willows and pines. Jaglom sits at the head of my table--how great is this?--holding court munificently. A gentleman in a white apron strolls over with a giant platter of oversize chocolate-chip cookies. He bends forward, offering them to Jaglom. Jaglom takes two and proffers the rest to us.
The crew has been calling him King Henry all week because of his decree: "There must be hot chocolate-chip cookies every day." Jaglom tells us he plans another film in his "women's series" about menopause. "Nobody's done one about that, ever," he says. I'm fascinated as he talks about his verite days in the '60s, his friendships with John Cassavetes, Rupert Cross, Roscoe Lee Brown, Shelley Winters, Peter Falk and the gang that never shot straight.
Jaglom even recites a poem he once had printed in the New York Times: "Everything becomes the past/ too fast/ Must/ all this aching/ go to making/ dust?"
Lunch has become a kind of beatnik-despot salon. Here is this hilarious character playing himself, and in the movie of my mind, an actual renegade Tinseltown storyteller. As an actor, Jaglom appeared onstage in New York, and in "That Girl" and hippie movies like "Psycho '68." Jack Nicholson once worked for him for a color TV. Jaglom says a studio offered him a $28-million budget, and he tried to convince it to make 10 movies with it. He says he now plans to shoot Bud Cort and other friends here at the 1920s estate in a story about old Hollywood.
Sycophant supreme that I suddenly am, I present my king with another cookie. "No No! Only two!" he shoos me. And like a fading wannabe ingenue, I slink away, stashing two in my pocket for later.
The Actress and the Auteur
Back on the set, I watch Jenny Gabrielle playing a short-skirted waitress in the tea garden. She is about 21, I swear she has a Swedish accent, but she says she's from Santa Fe. Gabrielle will be in Jaglom's fall release, "Festival in Cannes," with Maximilian Schell, Greta Scacci, Anouk Aimee and Ron Silver.
Jaglom keeps interrupting her scene, asking her to do it again, with more this and less that, and different and more so, telling her to do it the way she did it earlier or the time before the last or--"I want your feelings," he admonishes her. "Not how you think about it."
Gabrielle gets into a rage and is close to tears when she unburdens--about being a waitress in a short skirt, I think--on poor Matthau. Cut! Print! Jaglom likes it.
I'm glad I don't have to talk about myself on-camera. I secretly nibble on a cookie, watching him prepare the next scene. In his ever-present blue bucket sun hat and judo slippers with the backs of his feet teetering out of them, Jaglom shuffles through the woodchips behind his gatehouse, angry at his assistant director. He wants the entire neighborhood locked down, he wants her to get them to turn off their mowers and blowers and scrapers and tree surgery and copters and local airports and traffic, and he adds, "Don't let them know we're shooting!"
At lunch, he told us about a wooded hillside trail on the property, about actors who run up its path to catch the sunset.
He said he was afraid his young children would discover it before he had a chance to show them. Part of him wanted it to remain a mysterious, forest fairy tale for them.
I think he wants to film them discovering it. And why not? If Henry and Victoria and Sabrina and Simon could make this movie at home with me and 90 other actors, why shouldn't he make any film he wants to?
As far as I am concerned, v ive le Jaglom! I've got my memories.
And Charlie Matthau asked me to send him a screenplay.