Schulenberg’s Page: New York, Part CLXXXVI

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After an absence due to device/internet/21st century problems I’ve been absent but I’m back now so Happy New Year!

As I’d mentioned previously, on Thanksgiving, 1969 Paul Bartel was telling me about an idea he had for a feature film.  It was a quirky plot dealing with Doug and Mary Klein, a married couple who were named after the married movie couple, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The plot revolves around them being invited to a party and Doug insisting that they go. In the course of the evening the party becomes an orgy and Mary becomes furious, blaming Doug for bringing her there.  Their argument becomes more violent and the guests start watching them thinking it to be some new exotic and weird sexual game!  They are fascinated.

The plot develops as Doug and Mary become well known paid performers and become The Fabulous Kleins!

It was a rather unrealistic ridiculous situation that years later, Paul resolved and revised into the plot for EATING RAOUL, a film we made in 1982 that was released in 1983.

Being accustomed to Paul’s unique outlook but excited to see that he was still looking for a way to make a feature film, I wanted to encourage him and also to indicate to him (in a subtle way) that an audience would not easily understand or believe that world unless it could be presented in a style as unrealistic as the actions of the characters in the film.

We both loved the screwball comedies of the 1930s and agreed that the plot he’d described had a lot in common with those films.

When I’d first come to New York and started to freelance a very prominent illustrator’s representative, Elaine Sorel gave me advice on how to put together a portfolio of samples to show to art directors.  She said to only show samples of work that interested me the most and since I had always loved the graphics of the 1920s and ‘30s  I decided that I would present work that might have been in Vanity Fair or The New Yorker during that time.

Luckily and coincidentally the beginning of the 1960s had much in common with the period after WWI with changing mores, clothing, lifestyle, youth culture — everything!

Life cover by John Held, Jr.

I found art directors being very receptive to my portfolio possibly thinking that I was quite old and a veteran of the interwar period;  there was very little work around that reflected that mood and at the same time Art Deco was being talked about and revived everywhere!

I started getting a lot of work.

With all of this in mind I did some drawings for Paul with the idea of having opening titles of the film resembling the opening titles of 1930s movies.  It would at least set the framework for an audience to realize that the story presented was not going to be like most current movies.

I was a big admirer of the work of John Held, Jr. who characterized the ’20s spirit better than anyone!

I did some rough drawings for Paul to implant into his consciousness that his story needed to be shown in a special way visually.  I was thinking that similarly styled images could be included in opening titles to set the stage for what was to follow!

Here’s what I gave him:

As it turned out, nothing happened with The Reluctant Swingers as the work was called, but Paul was fascinated by the idea of a rather prim married couple being thrown into an unfamiliar sexual libertine situation and adjusting to it!

One way or another.

Years later I received a commission to do a print ad for Avis Car Rentals and they wanted it to be in the style of John Held, Jr.  I had heard that Held’s widow was alive and selling work he’d done and I’d thought it would be a chance to meet her and buy something of his.

I did as much research on him as I could and in those days there wasn’t a lot!  The New York Public Library Picture Collection was a big help.

Finally the work was completed and ran as a full page ad in TIME magazine.

I was excited to find out what Mrs. Held’s thoughts were about my tribute to her late husband.  The art director was very happy, the ad agency loved it.

Mrs. Held hated it — to the point of having her lawyer threaten to sue.

The agency had to pull the ad from all of the other publications for which it had been scheduled!

The great John Held Jr., who defined the Roaring Twenties.

My studious research and faithful adaptation of Held’s style had been too thorough and Mrs. Held thought of it as a forgery, a copyright infringement and any number of upsetting legalities!

Needless to say, I never was courageous enough to contact her, let alone try to purchase some artwork.

In 1982, however, Paul collaborated with Richard Blackburn and wrote another variant of the theme of a bewildered married couple beset by Sex!

It was EATING RAOUL and as we had done with The Secret Cinema we started getting together a group of friends and volunteers to start filming!

This time we were going to shoot enough to set the tone and then use it as a calling card to get a major financial group or studio to finance us enough to finish it.

We were able to use the apartment of Art Fein, a friend of Dick Blackburn’s, who had a collection of eccentric 1950’s furniture that was perfect for the couple’s apartment tone of the film.

My friend Craig Simpson, who had photographed Barbra Streisand for me in 1960, had a commercial production company and agreed to photograph our short calling card example.

By Craig Simpson (c)

When we had completed that bit people who saw it asked who’d be playing the part of Raoul?  Paul made a search and found a young (Latino) actor named Robert Beltran.  He was handsome but had never done a film — just theater.  But he was perfect!

So we shot a scene with Robert.

Robert Beltran.

Soon, Art Fein told us that his apartment building had been sold and he had to move as they were going to tear down the building!  This was a bigger problem for us than it was for him as we had established his apartment as the primary location for a lot of the action taking place in the film!

Paul asked me whether I thought it was a good idea to duplicate the apartment on a soundstage or to continue full speed in Art’s apartment. But when I suggested approximations of the costs of building a set, stage rental, furniture and prop rentals and moving … we realized we had to keep shooting where we’d started!

At that point Paul’s family sold their house in Montclair, New Jersey to move to a house they had in Florida.  They gave the money from the Montclair sale to Paul and immediately we became Mercury Films!

We gathered a crew and other actors — Paul and Mary Woronov, who’d appeared with Paul in several films were the married couple.

Denny Tedesco, a friend of mine with whom I’d previously worked became my Art Director and Denny went on to make the documentary, The Wrecking Crew which documented the studio musicians of which his father Tommy Tedesco was one.

Robert Beltran became most well known for his role as Commander Chakotay in the television series, Star Trek: Voyager!

Dick Blackburn turned us on to the Los Angeles Latino group, Los Lobos, who supplied music for the film.

Paul submitted it to the LA Film Festival where it was a standout hit!

After, during interviews when Paul was asked how this very independent film had been financed, Paul would have a very sad expression and in an emotional voice would say:

“My parents sold their house!”

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