It’s a harsh word. It sounds like something you’d need to repair a rusted drain pipe or a small, Indonesian rodent of indeterminate size. Anything but what it actually is, and that is the name given to those special times when film companies rent out whole floors of posh hotels and let unwashed journos swarm their movies’ stars for an 8-hour Bacchanalia of meaningless soundbites.
Dig deeper, and you’ll find that it contains a rigid caste system. It starts with the lowly bloggers who are forced into “roundtables” and reaches the heights of the slightly more attractive people who can finagle on-camera “one-on-ones” (check out the people in these videos, and shudder at the realization that there is a whole strata of professionals they WON’T allow on camera). The roundtables are a nightmare. You sit in one room with seven or eight other writers and they bring the stars to you, one at a time. The star comes in — terrified usually — takes a seat, and then everyone starts talking over each other to get a question in. The loudest and most annoying run the show, so if you work for, say, a sci-fi outlet and you are dying to ask J.J. Abrams about his upcoming Star Wars movie you’ll have to out-screech the People magazine writer who simply must know what he thinks about Kim and Kanye. This is not an exaggeration. I was once at a press junket for the Christopher Nolan film The Prestige (remember, this is about a year and a half before The Dark Knight was due to come out) and instead of getting Christian Bale to even discuss the highly-anticipated Batman sequel, the entire table was buffaloed by a writer who needed to know every intimate detail of Bale’s Rescue Dawn — a film seen by about four people. The table’s entire five-minute opportunity vanished into useless quotes about losing weight for Werner Herzog.
Well, at least the experience finished on a good note, as the People mag writer asked Bale what he thought about Paris Hilton and he replied, “I don’t give a fuck about Paris Hilton.”
For the on-cameras, the stars are set up in individual rooms and you are brought to them. The studio people parcel out interviewers three or four at a time, and you sit on a chair in the hallway waiting for the person in front of you to finish and leave so you can then get up and enter the suite. It feels not unlike extremely regimented prostitution. You then take your seat in a room heated to a fine baking temperature thanks to full-bore klieg lights and get about three minutes to fire away. It’s more intimate, claustrophobic, and uncomfortable, which brings me to the point of my little story.
Bombing here sucks. Imagine the worst “showing up naked in high school” dream you ever had, bottle that sweaty, beet-red embarrassment, let it ferment for a few years, and you have something close to what this feels like. A-listers staring at you, bored by you, or, worse, angry at you? Not sure why, but it’s really shitty.
The first time I bombed also happened to be the most heartbreaking — because it happened in front of Harrison Ford. You know those people who claim George Lucas crapped on their childhoods when he released the Star Wars prequels? Well, having Han Solo and Indiana Jones roll his eyes at me pretty much made my inner child shrivel into the well ghost from The Ring. The film he was there to promote was a generic thriller called Firewall, in which Ford once again took his eyes off his family for five fucking minutes and they all ended up in the clutches of a British villain. This was well before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when then idea of Ford returning as the iconic Dr. Jones was still just a rumor. I was working under the assumption that I would not be appearing on camera during the final edit (if I knew I was going to appear, I would have memorized my questions to limit onscreen fumbling. I’d also have worn a better shirt) so I tried to goad the most humorless man in the business into answering some jokey questions.
By the time I asked something about whether or not he would need a CGI whip (read, I’ll admit, clumsily off a notepad on my lap — it’s all about delivery, folks), Ford sighed heavily, looked at someone off camera (probably his publicist) and rolled his eyes. He then gave me a one-word answer, “No.” He then stared at me for what seemed like entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. My time slot ticked away in huge, Bugs Bunny cartoon sound effects in my ears: “TICK. TOCK. TICK.” Aaaaand….we’re done.
What made it worse was the type of eye roll. It wasn’t a “I’m so bored” eye roll. It wasn’t even a sarcastic eye roll. He widened his eyes and looked away. It was a “how did they let this hamster in here?” eye roll, which we can all agree is the worst possible kind.
Of course, a few years later Ford would end up watching Shia LaBeouf fight CGI monkeys, so I felt a little better.
The second incident was much, much worse. It started when I was hired by a new outlet I hadn’t worked for previously — they had seen some of the videos I did and reached out for help with the Superman Returns junket. Being a comic book nerd, I was happy to do it…until they sent me a list of the questions I was to ask. I’m not saying my choices are perfect (see above), but they’re at least my questions. Nope. These were corporate-approved questions and I was not to deviate from them.
These questions, to put it mildly, were unsalvageable. Like, “What would Lex Luthor do on a date?” bad (oh how I wish that were an exaggerated example and not an actual question, but it was). But what could I do? They were paying me, so I went in with my awful, indefensible questions and stared down the prickliest actor in Hollywood this side of Ford.
I think I got to the Lex Luthor date questions when Kevin Spacey shifted in his seat, leaned in to me and sneered, “Are you going to continue with these stupid questions?”
I flop-sweated like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. To make matters worse, Keyser Soze apparently did not think his question was rhetorical. He wanted an answer, and he was willing to wait for one. The lights cooked me to a nice, heart-attack shade of red.
I squeaked out a “Yes.”
His jaw twitched. For a moment, I thought he might actually hit me. This was a hundred times worse than the time Vinnie Jones responded to an innocuous David Beckham question by suddenly going stone-faced, leaning right into my personal space, and growling, “I’m not ‘ere to talk about David fooking Beckham.” He, too, was not joking. So Spacey sat back, and for the remainder of my three minutes he fired off contemptuous one-word answers when he bothered to answer at all. It was a blur. I left the room and could barely remember the rest of the junket (except for Parker Posey asking me once the cameras were off, “You didn’t write those did you?” When I said I hadn’t, she patted me on the arm and said, “I’m sorry.”). The outlet never did use the video and they never hired me again.
The lesson? If you’re going to be an idiot, at least be your own idiot. A writer only has their own words to defend themselves, so don’t be a puppet for anyone else. Leave that to the pretty people.
Oh, and I did once make Cameron Diaz laugh ice tea out of her nose, so these things tend to balance themselves out.