I stumbled into the offices of Crossroads Films in the early 90's, resume in hand, looking for work. Any work. They were listed in a little booklet I bought at Samuel French Book Shop on Santa Monica Blvd. This is pre-internet folks, and a database of production company addresses is something that had to be purchased on paper. I firmly believe that I would have NEVER gotten ANY work without going door to door. Walking in, taking the occasional sideways glances and offhand "Good luck, buddy"s (i.e.: eating shit) from people was a necessary evil and one I think we avoid too often.
Crossroads struck me as immediately different. Dru and Pam, the office staff there, welcomed me and said they might have something. I can't remember if I came back or sat down for an interview there on the spot (with Doc) but shortly afterwards I was hired as the office runner. I was given the task of driving around Los Angeles in circles all day delivering film, picking up coffees, lunch, dry cleaning... anything and everything that needed to be done...It was Heaven for me. Except all the driving. I was currently living in Huntington Beach- where my girlfriend- and soon to be wife was - about a 90 minute drive through heavy traffic each way.
Criminal, really, the available low quality uploaded version. I was there, I saw the attention to detail. I really hope there's a digital archive of this stuff somewhere.
One of the first jobs I had was taking 3/4" tape masters of Crossroads Films director commercials and compiling showreels. PRE DIGITAL WORLD, people. If I had to dub a THIRTY minute reel it took THIRTY MINUTES. So I spent a lot of time watching commercials. Like most people I hated ads. They are, of course, or WERE the whole reason we have TV shows. The narratives we consume are just placeholders for the products we're being sold. But soon I saw that there was an art to effective condensed story-telling and the master of that medium I came to believe was Mark Story. I watched, mouth open, often laughing aloud, every commercial I'd ever LIKED. I couldn't wait to watch this guy at work. And it wasn't long before I was loitering on set... taking my time with my errands so that I might soak up a little of his magic. I soon left the office gig and began working on set, eventually doing some Assistant Camera work and then later, Directing a bit.
I'm not sure exactly how it is now, I've been away from Hollywood since 2001 but in the early 90's Directors were Kings. I would arrive an hour or so before a Pre-Production meeting and prepare Mark's breakfast: A papaya half (minus the guts and seeds) filled with vanilla yogurt topped with fresh berries. I'd have coffee ready and plenty of croissants or bagels for the Ad Agency folks. Budgets were BIG back then. REALLY BIG. I don't know the numbers but there was A LOT OF MONEY floating around these productions. Director Fees were in the thousands... per day... and it was common for crew members wages to be $500-$1000 a day, + overtime. Production Assistants were on flat rates- $125-$175/day. They could afford to keep everyone happy with papayas and croissants.
There was a lot of stress and difficult times, for sure, but what I remember most really was the kindness. Kindness from people like Assistant Camera Man Ron Raschke, who really took the time to explain things to me. Me, fresh from the midwest, tail wagging, hungry for information. Ron always had a smile and was ready to share. Producer Peter Abraham as well. Not much older than me and already producing Peter had (still does I'm sure) a deep understanding of the big picture. I think that's what makes a good producer, in fact. And I was interested in EVERYthing. The sets, the lighting, the way the grips were rigging stuff, costumes, dollies, cranes, but mostly in Mark's interaction with his talent. He had a perverse relationship almost with 'characters.' He was able to interpret and distill information in a very unique way. The ads are ridiculously brief - 30 seconds. It's almost over before you realize you're watching it but the characters and the material stick with you if it's handled well. They said he could 'polish a turd' and I can testify in favor of that. The ad agency folks would come to him with sometimes very inane ideas - I'd seen the scripts - I made the xeroxes! And Mark was able to spin it, able to re-interpret it though his own lens and make it into art. He had some kind of separation from other humans- I'm not sure where it comes from- but it helped him to inspire performances that I really don't think others could get. (I've seen some of this in the work of Spike Jonze later on...) Mark was, in some ways, a difficult person to get to know- this is from the perspective of a Production Assistant at the time- so a lot of that in MY case is intentionally built into the system. I soaked up everything I could when he was working. In the ten years I lived and worked in LA I was around a LOT of directors and he, more than anyone else, inspired me to do the best work I could. Not really in overt way, but just in the way that he worked. Some people can just do great work and it inspires you. They don't have to go around slapping you on the back proclaiming 'atta boy.' That said, he was encouraging when I began directing little things, he seemed genuinely happy for me. It's had to call him a mentor, really, he never sat down and told me WHY he did this or that, but I think you can make your own mentors just by observing, really observing. I would encourage younger people starting out not to be put off by their perception of anyone's lack of interest. If you observe someone working and you can take something from it. Eat it up. Your passion, the development of your craft, that only needs to be exciting to YOU, and you need to take control of it. I cherish the moments on set while I was supposed to be running an errand or filling a cooler that I stood still, silent, in the dark, behind the lighting rigs and the set walls... listening to a director working with his actors... and then seeing the results. Those moments inform my work today. And they make me want to do better.