An answer to the question: Whatever happened to your movie?

August 20, 2012

I originally wrote this piece two years ago, then hung on to it because, well, optimism won out over experience.

But in the past month, with the deaths of Judith Crist and Helen Gurley Brown – both of whom were interviewed for my documentary, “Do You Sleep in the Nude” – I thought, well, what am I waiting for?

I’d originally written this in early 2010, after seeing two documentaries at Sundance that dealt with facets of the same subject: Adrian Grenier’s “Teenage Paparazzo” and Leon Gast’s “Smash His Camera.” They both focused on the ravenous appetite of celebrity journalism, and how it is serviced by what have become camera-wielding hordes, who make their living taking pictures of celebrities in their private moments.

Both films looked back at the history of celebrity journalism and how it made the leap from the days when the studios closely guarded the reputations of their stars to the current anything-goes era of TMZ, Perez Hilton and the glossy weeklies.

My film covered the same subject from a different angle. But, six years after we finished shooting, and four years after its last festival showing, the film is still sitting on the shelf. Which, I’ve finally accepted, is where it probably will stay.

By this point, several of the people I interviewed are dead. Many more have moved on from the jobs they were in when I interviewed them. Just to bring it up to date would be time-consuming. But it doesn’t really matter at this point.

My story is hardly unique. There are thousands of films submitted each year to the major festivals that don’t make the cut. And even the ones that are chosen – for Sundance or Toronto or Tribeca – aren’t guaranteed a release. Indeed, there are hundreds of film festivals around the country that show tens of thousands of films each year – films that subsequently go no further.

I knew what the odds were when we started (though, of course, I was convinced I could beat them). I’d heard the horror stories from filmmakers I’d interviewed over the years: unscrupulous and inept producers, financiers and film companies, and so forth.

Still, I thought I knew the pitfalls and could outsmart the system. Let’s just say that it’s humbling when you find out you’re not as brilliant as you think.

So I’m writing this to admit that, no, I’m not as smart as I thought – and to answer the question I still occasionally get from people who knew what I was involved in: Whatever happened to your movie?

My film is a documentary called “Do You Sleep in the Nude” and is a profile of film critic and journalist Rex Reed. I had the idea in the summer of 2005 while at lunch with some publicist friends. At the time, I had just finished writing a biography of actor-director John Cassavetes and was starting to get the itch to do another project. But, having written three biographies, I also had the urge to try something different – a documentary, perhaps, instead of a biography.

I thought of Rex for a couple of reasons: For one thing, I knew him and was friendly with him, having gotten to know him through the New York Film Critics Circle and seeing him at screenings. To me, he was exactly the kind of character you build a documentary around: funny, outspoken, with an opinion on everything and no inhibition about sharing it.

More to the point, I saw him as a historic figure, a writer who had been part of the so-called New Journalism of the 1960s, someone who had changed and shaped celebrity journalism. I remembered reading his celebrity profiles in the Sunday New York Times when it would arrive in my high-school library in suburban Minneapolis. At the time, I wished I could write about that kind of people – and that I could do it with the style and wit that Rex always employed.

To me, Rex had been a game-changer: someone who took the standard celebrity profile and made it something new, something personal, something in which, for the first time, the writer called it like he saw it, rather than spoon-feeding his audience the studio’s party line. Plus he’d become a celebrity in his own right: as an outspoken talk-show regular, acting in the film “Myra Breckinridge,” even serving as a panelist on the original “Gong Show” and other game shows.

But I felt as though Rex had been forgotten by subsequent generations. Though he still writes for the New York Observer, his best-selling collections of celebrity profiles – “Do You Sleep in the Nude?,” “Conversations in the Raw,” “People Are Crazy Here” (which are like terrific little time capsules and still make great reading) – were long out of print.

I talked to Rex about my idea, and he got on board pretty quickly. Though he’d had offers to write his memoirs, he didn’t feel ready. But he liked the idea of a film that could encapsulate his career.

I spent a couple of months looking for funding (and this was 2005, when docs were momentarily considered a commercially viable venture) – but mostly what I heard was, “We’d love to see it when you’re finished.”

Then I met The Producer (who I won’t mention by name but will simply refer to that way): a guy who had worked in Wall Street, made some dough and decided to make movies. And he’d had some success: His first film actually won an award from the New York Film Critics Circle and I’d even shown a couple of his subsequent efforts at film clubs I hosted. Indeed, I was showing one of those films when I mentioned my idea to The Producer.

“A documentary about Rex Reed and the history of celebrity journalism? We could do that – easily,” he said. His production company had never done a documentary but it had made several features – how difficult could it be? He’d raise the money from his pool of investors, make the movie, then tap into his connections to get the film into the festivals in Toronto, Sundance, Tribeca. The world would be our oyster.

With such good intentions are the road to Hell firmly paved.

Everything seemed easy to The Producer. He was a good-vibes guy who, no matter what the problem, could make me feel better about it. He should have had the words “No worries” tattooed on his forehead.

And, though he was occasionally hard to get a hold of in the months that followed, The Producer did get us into production in early 2006. He found us the money to go to New Orleans to film Rex when he appeared at the city’s annual Tennessee Williams festival. He was also able to underwrite a week in Los Angeles, where we interviewed a number of Rex’s movie-star friends (including Angela Lansbury, Jacqueline Bisset, Esther Williams, the late Dixie Carter and the late Jean Simmons).

Over the course of another month, we shot a series of interviews in Manhattan with people like Dick Cavett, Richard Thomas, Elizabeth Ashley and other friends of Rex (including a very funny 90-minute lunch with Rex and Liz Smith shmoozing about the old days). We also interviewed Rex at length in several locations, including his Connecticut house, shooting the final interview at his apartment at the Dakota on Central Park West in late May 2006.

Once we finished shooting, I was eager to get to work editing the film to make the Sundance entry deadline (because, The Producer assured me, he had an ‘in’ at Sundance that practically ensured us a spot). Thus began the grueling process of actually reaching the Producer to talk about hiring an editor and getting started. Except the producer was neither returning phone messages nor emails (or text messages which were the one sure way of getting his attention – until then).

In October of 2006 (we’d finished shooting in May), we did finally hire an editor, and spent much of November, December and part of January locked in an editing suite just north of SoHo. We worked at cutting the hours of footage down to size, with The Producer stopping in from time to time to look at our progress and make suggestions.

We finally got a cut together that we liked in February 2007 – and The Producer scheduled a series of investor screenings. The purpose was to raise the money to finish the film. We had three or four of those screenings, always with excitement (and suggestions) afterward.

The film wasn’t finished – but still, The Producer submitted it to that year’s Tribeca Film Festival, to which The Producer again said he had an ‘in.’

Not ‘in’ enough, apparently; it was rejected.

Suddenly, we lost all forward momentum. We had yet to acquire the archival footage of Rex’s appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “The Mike Douglas Show” that we needed (the ones without watermarks or time-codes embedded). But, at that point, we moved out of the editing suite and The Producer seemed to disappear again, this time until almost September 2007, when the Hamptons Film Festival accepted it.

We played the Hamptons to a great response and then – nothing. Once again, The Producer seemed to vanish, go incommunicado. Or he did until I got a note from someone at South by Southwest, saying he’d seen my film at the Hamptons and wanted to show it in Austin at SXSW 2008.

So we took it to Austin; I flew to Texas for the first of the screenings, where I met the sales rep The Producer had hired. The sales rep was gung-ho: love the movie, going to sell it, yadda yadda yadda. Stay tuned.

And then – radio silence.

In late 2008, The Producer said that he’d made a deal with Showtime for the film. But the offer turned out to be both low and prohibitive, in terms of ancillary rights that would make it worth someone else’s while to acquire them. And it didn’t include funds to actually finish the film.

The last time I met with The Producer, toward the end of 2009, he was still saying the same thing, still holding out the hope that someone – a video-on-demand service or a DVD distributor or even a foreign distributor – was on the verge of giving us the money we needed “if we can just get Showtime to give up the VOD part of it.”

As far as I know, that’s where things still stand. The movie still sits on a shelf (figuratively speaking), which is where I’m afraid it will remain forever.

On the bright side, I did get to make a movie that took me to two film festivals, where a couple of hundred people saw it – and seemed to enjoy it.

On the bright side, it wasn’t my money that paid for the production costs or the editing or any of my travel associated with the production or those festivals.

I don’t own any part of the film; the decision on how to get it finished and out to the public is out of my hands.

I’ll admit that I went into this relatively naively, assuming that, because The Producer had made films with established actors and directors in the past, he knew what he was doing. It was only later that I had conversations with various people who had worked for The Producer, who told horror stories about his fiscal practices.

I tend to think The Producer and his partners weren’t so much dishonest as incompetent (though one of them was indicted for hedge-fund fraud). To be fair, we made a documentary just as the bottom dropped out of that market (indeed, for all independent films, for the most part).

My relationship with Rex remains about the same: We’re friendly when we see each other at screenings and occasionally he’ll tell me about someone I should talk to who might be interested in doing something with the film. Which they are, until they hear the financial details.

Would I make another movie? Sure. In a heartbeat.

But I guess I’d want to see a pile of cash upfront before I did.

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