And then Richard Dreyfuss punched me in the chest.
I’m getting ahead of myself already, but it’s hard not to jump to the most interesting part of my visit to the set of Poseidon, the remake of The Poseidon Adventure, on the Warner Bros lot in Los Angeles, California.
I had come to the City of Angels as the latest in a parade of interweb journalists who had been participating in a truly great idea called “The Poseidon Journals.” The concept here was elegant in its simplicity – rather than have a whole bunch of online outlets descend on the set of the movie all on the same day, generating a ton of identical coverage, Warner Bros would send us out one at a time, a week apart. Each site would see something different, and talk to different people.
I was excited when I was told that my interview would be with Richard Dreyfuss, who is part of the honestly very cool ensemble cast gathered by Wolfgang Petersen. Dreyfuss is one of those guys who has been around for a while, seen plenty of great things, and starred in plenty of great movies. The chance to meet him would truly be an honor.
Devin: So I understand that you retired from films in 2004. What brought you back?
Devin: OK. But what was it about Poseidon in particular that really got your interest?
Dreyfuss: The money they offered.
Everyone has this notion of what a movie studio lot should be like, and I think it’s largely informed by old movies where they would show you an alleyway between the stages where Roman Centurions and spacemen mingled on smoke breaks. Life rarely lives up to that kind of cinema visual, so imagine how happy I was when I saw that the path to the Poseidon set was full of people in fabulous evening wear – tuxedos and gorgeous gowns – covered in soot, sweat and blood. The extras were milling about, and walking through them was the perfect way to enter the fantasy land of movie making.
Poseidon sprawls across a number of stages. It’s a huge production, being done the old fashioned way, mainly with sets. In the film the Poseidon, a massive luxury liner, capsizes on New Years Eve when a Rogue Wave (I was told very specifically to make sure we mention that it’s a Rogue Wave, and not a tidal wave. A tidal wave, it seems, only hits shores. A rogue wave will pop up on you in the middle of the ocean, much like Peterson’s – which, in a coincidence, The Perfect Storm was shot on the same stage where I would see Poseidon shooting) nails it. The whole thing goes upside down, so Peterson had his crew build sets – like a massive ballroom I saw, where Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas will perform – right side up and upside down.
I had a chance to peek about in the production office, where I saw all sorts of cool storyboards (like one of people running down a hallway in a panic, stampeding other people). In the office Dr. Strangelove played on a TV while the walls were covered with art and blueprints. They had detailed schematics of the Poseidon – including a very official looking Emergency Exit Plan (I bet that comes in handy in the film. Not! Don’t you miss saying ‘Not!’ or ‘As if!’ at the end of sentences to indicate your sarcastic intent?). There were also schematics of the Queen Mary, a real life cruise ship that has yet to be capsized by a Wave, Rogue or otherwise. I imagine they based some of their fictional boat on this real one. Or the drawings of the real one.
Devin: Tell me again who you’re playing.
Devin: Nelson Reilly?
Devin: Charles Nelson Reilly.
Dreyfuss: Just Nelson. We just call him Nelson. As we call Achilles. Achilles… Nelson.
The Warner lot is busy here – there are constantly little golf carts and cars and trucks zooming by as I walk with Tiffany, my official Warner Bros liaison. She tells me to watch myself as the cars zoom past and we come to meet Rob Harris, the unit publicist. He’s going to take us around the set, answer the stupid questions I will later have (“How big is that stage on the gimbal?” I will ask, as if anyone honestly will ever care. But hey, it sounds like a question a reporter might ask!) Rob’s tall, and reminds me of Peter Mayhew, but only when outside of the Chewbacca costume.
Rob leads us over to Stage 20. A plaque outside the door lists the great films and TV series that have been shot on Stage 20, and I take a moment to write down the ones most apropos – The Old Man and the Sea. The Perfect Storm, as previously noted. They also shot The Big Sleep here, and Batman Forever. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. And the TV series Dukes of Hazzard shot on this stage, even though the plaque grants Hazzard County but one Z. Later I go look it up to make sure the plaque’s wrong. That’s fact checking, folks.
Outside Stage 20 we meet the lovely Emmy Rossum, one of the few watchable elements of last year’s egregious Phantom of the Opera. In fact, I just checked my review of that film and found that I called her “fetching.” Which she is now, even with a fine layer of dirt all over, and some blood at her hairline, and a sweatshirt covering her formal wear. With her is a friend visiting from England, who it seems is really enjoying the LA weather.
Devin: About two weeks ago they did a screening of Close Encounters out at Devil’s Tower.
Dreyfuss: That would be cool.
Devin: Do you ever revisit your films from the 70s?
Dreyfuss: Regularly. Yearly. I carry these Richard Dreyfuss itineraries, for these three day train rides. We go on the Richard Dreyfuss Memorial Tour – this is where American Graffiti was shot, this is where Tin Men was shot.
Stage 20 is big. Inside there’s a lot of dampness going on – puddles on the floor, and a general chill and smell of basement. There’s machinery everywhere. This isn’t my first set visit – I’ve been to Berlin to see Aeon Flux and Vancouver for The Fog, so I’m no newbie on a movie set, thank you. But this is the first time I’m seeing so much machinery. We walk to craft services and have to step around huge hydraulics and things.
Craft services, Rob tells me, is the best place to catch people for impromptu interviews. When we get there I note with absolute joy that there’s a tray of grass next to a juicer. What’s even better is that some guy with half his face burned off has just been making himself a wheatgrass shot. Across from craft service is a guy dressed like a ship’s officer, bloodied and reading the LA Times. I am disappointed that it’s not Variety. Were I a less scrupulous journalist, I would have altered that detail.
Craft services doesn’t really bring us much luck so we make our way around, stepping through puddles and over wires and cables (a combination that seems just awful, but you have to assume that these people know what the heck they’re doing safety-wise on a film shoot. By the way, some of The Twilight Zone movie was shot on Stage 20) to get to the monitor. Along the way I see Kurt Russell getting made up. Seeing an actor in their natural habitat like that, having sweat and grime applied to them, is so much better than seeing them in a junket. Honestly, it’s like going on safari versus driving through Busch Gardens.
Devin: So you’re back in the acting gig for the money, you said previously. We can quote you on that?
Dreyfuss: That’s up to you, isn’t it? You and your editor.
Devin: I don’t have an editor.
Dreyfuss: That’s the greatest thing about America.
Devin: Isn’t it?
Dreyfuss: No censorship. We can say whatever we want.
Devin: Whatever we like.
Dreyfuss: But don’t say anything that Rupert doesn’t like.
Devin: Well, he doesn’t own us.
Being on a movie set is all about waiting. I didn’t believe that movie sets could possibly be boring until I was actually on one and found the standing about stultifying. And everybody does it. You see this massive production just grind to a halt because a light needs to be checked or something.
While we’re waiting for something to start happening on the massive, enclosed stage that towers above us on a big old gimbal (I never did find out just how big that stage was), Rob introduces me to the Mike and Mike, the guys from KNB FX who are providing the Poseidon with all of its corpses. And these are good corpses.
“We have 74 right now,” Mike McCarty says. And which are the “hero” corpses (check out that lingo, huh? A hero anything in the movie world is whatever gets the close-up. So while Aragorn may seem to carry but the one sword, Viggo was probably toting around different blades made of different things depending on how much the camera would see or how close it would get. The hero sword would be the one that gets the close-up)? “They all look pretty good. They’ve all been in front of the camera at some point.”
Devin: Is there more stage work for you?
Dreyfuss: I’m retired and if you offer me a lot of money I’m not retired.
Devin: I’m assuming they came to you with the money offer for Poseidon.
Dreyfuss: They begged me. They crawled.
Devin: On their knees.
Dreyfuss: On their knees.
Devin: Did Wolfgang himself get on his knees?
Dreyfuss: Oh no.
Devin: Was Kurt Russell on his knees?
Dreyfuss: No no no no no no no. Au contraire, my dear frere. It’s not done that way. Business people come in, they get down on their knees, they tell you they love you, they give you huge amounts of money, you sign and then they laugh maniacally and they disappear into a cloud of smoke and you’re working in something less for less.
But not this time. This time it’s all great.
I am so curious about the bodies that Mike McCarty leads me out of Stage 20 to The Corpse Shed (please note that I don’t know if The Corpse Shed really gets caps, but I like it that way). There some of the other KNB guys are hanging around in a room where dead bodies are stacked like cordwood. There are actually a number of grotesquely realistic bodies propped up outside the Shed, waiting their turn.
The bodies range from perfectly intact to hideously burnt to a crisp. I am told that the burned up bodies have been used in a lot of other films and movies, starting with Vampire$. They’ve also appeared on 24, and you can catch them on Friday in Joss Whedon’s Serenity. One of the charred corpses has a penis, and I had to marvel at the attention to detail, and then I had to keep myself from touching it.
In the midst of these corpses are heads and bodies that sort of remind me of famous people, famous people who are not in this movie but who were in other films that KNB did the effects for. At this point I confess to the KNB crowd that when I was a kid I was a huge make-up geek. I bought the Dick Smith book and the Tom Savini tapes and book. Mike McCarty tells me a little bit about working on Day of the Dead and I almost faint. It ain’t pretty, folks. But in general the KNB guys aren’t impressed with my devotion. They chose a road I wasn’t man enough for. They took on a life filled with Karo syrup and gallons of latex, gelatins and Plaster of Paris molds. I was just a dilettante, and the disgust in their eyes is palpable. Shamed, I leave The Corpse Shed, never to return.
Devin: Is there something else they’ve offered you after this for a lot of money? Another project?
Devin: So when this is done you’re going back into retirement.
Dreyfuss: The moment the film is over I’m retired.
Devin: What do you do when you’re retired?
Dreyfuss: I have to get the nurse to help me with that one.
What do I do when I’m retired? I read. I buy books. I read.
Devin: What are you reading currently?
Dreyfuss: I’m reading a history of Genghis Khan and I’m reading a history of Russia. Not a very good one either.
Dreyfuss: They skip the history! The guy says, ‘And then the prince is in Kiev,’ and I go, ‘Well wait a minute, how did they get there?’ So I’m a little disappointed with that one. But the Genghis Khan is quite good.
Devin: So you’re a history buff?
Dreyfuss: No I usually like to read Jacqueline Suzanne and Danielle Steel, but I was out of them.
Devin: You’ve come to the end of those.
Dreyfuss: I’ve read forty eight hundred of them.
Back on Stage 20, filming is happening. We take seats around the monitors. For a minute I was going to sit in the chair with KURT RUSSELL emblazoned on it, but then I felt like it would be sacrilege. I plant my ass on Associate Producer Barbara Huber’s seat instead.
Previously I had seen Josh Lucas, the star of Poseidon. He was walking to the stairs leading up to that big stage on a gimbal, that stage of which no one will ever know the true dimensions. He shot me a look that said, “I’ve had one of the greatest death scenes in modern cinema. What have you done? How many white lines have you turned into?” Of course the answer was none, so I broke off eye contact and Lucas retained alpha dog status on set.
What’s interesting, though, is that what we watch being filmed on the monitor doesn’t have Josh Lucas in it. The scene involves ballast tanks filling with water, and we see the stage hopping up and down to simulate a ship that has been distressed by at least two songs from Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, as well as a Rogue Wave. But what the camera is shooting is Emmy Rossum and Dreyfuss, while Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas speak thier lines off camera. What’s interesting here is that many actors wouldn’t stick around to act off camera. The script supervisor or the assistant director often just reads the lines that the actors on camera have to react to. Lucas and Russell are obviously class acts.
Dreyfuss: You know, Steve Jobs is going to be really disappointed. Let’s go! Let’s go! Yo! Ho!
Devin: Do you get seasick up on that stage as it bounces?
Dreyfuss: No. You see, I’m on a set. Inside a soundstage.
Devin: It’s been thirty years since Jaws.
Dreyfuss: It seems like yesterday.
Devin: Well, that was water picture and now you’re back on the water.
Dreyfuss: No. You see, I’m on a set. Inside a soundstage. The sharks can’t get in here.
When Richard Dreyfuss leaves the scene that is being shot and joins me for our interview, he doesn’t punch me right away. That comes at the end. He’s wearing the remnants of a tux, and a big diamond earring. He’s playing a middle aged, lonely gay man, he tells me. I need to stress that this is what he tells me. Richard Dreyfuss, you see, is being impish. In fact, I tell him that I will at some point in this article describe him as “the impish Richard Dreyfuss.”
I now have done just that.
Dreyfuss builds up to the punch. He gets an iced coffee, and after taking a sip he throws some of the ice at me. He immediately follows that up by splashing the coffee itself in my face.
Devin: That was pretty tasty.
Dreyfuss: It’s taken them sixty something days to get it right.
It is in fact day 60something out of 85, which I found out from David Markus, the assistant to the line producer. David also spills to me about someone who dies, which I won’t tell you about, since really the fun of a movie like this is seeing all the cast members get knocked off one by one.
IMDB also tells me that David Markus once appeared in an episode of Saved by the Bell: The College Years. IMDB and I are not on speaking terms, though, since it reported to me that Richard Dreyfuss would be appearing in Paul Weitz’ new film American Dreamz. He never even heard of that film, it turns out.
Richard Dreyfuss has been doing a good job of keeping me off balance. I have to admit that he’s not the biggest star I’ve ever interviewed, but he is someone I have always admired. When my stepmother met my father she thought he kind of looked like Richard Dreyfuss, which is really stunningly false.
Dreyfuss: Aren’t they going to ask for a sequel to this?
Devin: There was a sequel to the original, called Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. By the way, have you seen the original?
[At this point, Dreyfuss throws his quite full cup of iced coffee at a garbage can. At, not in, as the cup hits the side of the can and coffee explodes all over.]
Dreyfuss: Not bad with my right! I’m a leftie!
Devin: So you’ve seen the original, I assume.
Dreyfuss: I have.
Devin: You enjoy the original?
Dreyfuss: You want to see my Shelly Winters impersonation?
Devin: I would love to see your Shelly Winters impersonation.
[At this point, Richard Dreyfuss does his Shelly Winters impersonation. It’s quite funny, but purely visual.]
Devin: If only I had the skills to express that in words.
Dreyfuss: Now you have a goal.
During the whole interview I’m really just wondering how the heck I’m going to turn this into an article. I guess this part is a little meta, but I was worried. Dreyfuss was being odd, that’s for sure, but he was also being funny, and it all seemed so dry (except for my face, which still had iced coffee on it) that I didn’t know if it would translate into text.
“You’ll make sure people know he was being funny?” Tiffany asks.
Dreyfuss: This is for CHUD, right? This is CHUD. It’s not like for the Nobel Prize.
Devin: Not yet. We’re working on it.
Dreyfuss: Go for it. Do unto others.
Devin: Did you just make that up on the spot? That was great.
Dreyfuss: Did you know the story about that? Hillel and Akiva were walking down the lane and a fool, a cynic jumped at them and said, ‘If you can tell me the essence of Judaism while I stand on one leg, I’ll convert.’ And Akiva said, ‘Get out of here. Get out of here. Don’t waste our time.’ And Hillel said, ‘Hold it. Lift your leg.’ And the guy lifts his leg and Hillel says, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. That’s Judaism. The rest is commentary. Go study.’
[At this point Richard Dreyfuss suddenly leans over and punches me in the chest, on my right breast, just next to my armpit. I drop my digital recorder and begin laughing.]
Devin: That was a good story. That was a rousing ending as well.
Dreyfuss: Do you want to hear another one? About the Civil War? Or World War I? I make them up as I go along.
Devin: Will it have a similar ending? Will it end with you punching me?
Dreyfuss: There’s only the one story, as Aristotle said.
Chapter 6 coming next week at Coming Soon!