On a January 2001 day that began at dawn and ended long after the sun had gone down, I was an invited guest on the set of Vanilla Sky at Paramount Studios. There, I had the fascinating experience of participating in the filming of a “party scene” which included three of the stars of the movie. I also had the distinct privilege of observing director Cameron Crowe as well as Scott Martin in his professional duties as associate producer.
JARBOE: How long have you worked in film production in Hollywood?
SCOTT MARTIN: I’ve been working in film or television since 1993, initially as a production assistant, then as an executive assistant and finally as an associate producer for Cameron Crowe, with whom I continue to work.
JARBOE: Tell me about your work for the film, Vanilla Sky. You are credited as Associate Producer. What does this entail?
SCOTT: This is a question I get asked constantly, “What the hell do you actually do?”People, especially my family, get very upset that I have a hard time defining it at any given time. I work with Cameron Crowe, who writes, directs and produces. My job is to assist him in any and every way I can. Something very tangible I produced last year was a DVD called Untitled. We were working on Vanilla Sky at the same time and Cameron had hardly any time to devote to the creation of the DVD, unless it directly involved his creative input, such as the audio commentary. So I took on the responsibility of shepherding that while he focused on the movie at hand. At the same time, I was helping Cameron with casting decisions, editorial decisions and day to day production problems, depending where we were in the process. Cameron has final cut and final say in every single decision regarding the movie, but he uses me as a sounding board to help work through problems. We have now done Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, and Vanilla Sky together, so I feel like I can contribute an opinion that honors his directing style and is best for the film. Also, I bring a lot of music into the fold. We play music on the set, during takes or between takes to help motivate the actors, or establish a mood. Cameron and I collaborate on that. We have very different tastes in music, so we are able to cover a lot of ground. He used to tour with Zeppelin and The Who and I used to skate to Swans records and Bowie’s Low. It’s an interesting musical partnership that has, sort of, organically developed between the two of us. That’s why we can have a soundtrack like Vanilla Sky that contains artists from Sigur Ros to Rundgren to Leftfield.
JARBOE: Is it true that within the Hollywood system most directors have very little control over their finished films? How difficult is it for a director to really be able to say, “This is how I would like to see my finished film” and actually have it be that way?
SCOTT: Well, my experience working on major films is limited to Cameron’s movies and he has absolute final cut of his work. I do think most directors do not exert final cut over their movies. There are very few true auteurs in Hollywood that can completely call their own shots when you look at the volume of movies that are produced each year. Most directors are guns for hire and come in to do a job, nothing more. The “filmmaker’s club” in the big Hollywood system is pretty small. You think of people like Tim Burton, Michael Mann, and the mega-guys like Spielberg. But, there aren’t too many. I have been at the monitor for virtually every take of every shot of our last three films and don’t even pretend to know about what it’s like to be the guy that has the final say on every aspect of everything. And the guy that has to live with those decisions long after everyone else is gone.
JARBOE: You mentioned your involvement with the “Untitled” project. Tell me about your work on the book: Conversations with Wilder as well as the DVD of Vanilla Sky.
SCOTT: My involvement in Conversations with Wilder was essentially to help give the book a particular look. While Cameron would be off writing orinterviewing Billy, I would be at Vinyl Films going through every frame ofevery one of Billy’s films looking for images. We have a video printer andI would freeze frame stuff I thought was interesting and print it up. Many of the images used in the book are directly from our VCR. Additionally, I had access to Billy’s personal photo collection as well as collections from friends and business associates. Cameron and I wanted the book to have a casual feel and be an explosion of images. We avoided the Paris Review aesthetic and tried to not be self-important. We didn’t want it to look like a textbook, although it should function as a textbook on some level, for people interested in film.
Regarding the Vanilla Sky DVD, I put together a short film that acts as an introduction to the feature. It’s called Prelude To a Dream and I compiled it from audition tapes, wardrobe tests, behind the scene footage and various other sources. It was Cameron’s concept for giving the behind the scenes footage a bit of a narrative, rather than just slapping it on the DVD. We try to do something unique for each DVD we put out.
JARBOE: Give me a sketch, an overview of the process Vinyl Films sets into motion for a project. From “concept inception” to….”Now Showing” in malls of America, theatres across the globe….How long is the process? And after all the planning and actual production, what happens? Trial runs/showings in front of real audiences?
SCOTT: Hmmm. From “concept” to “Now Showing” usually encompasses two years of constant activity, but I’ll try to give you an overview. Our process, of course, begins with Cameron going away to write a script. During this time, we will usually set up a deal with a major studio that is interested in making the film. Cameron’s reputation is such that there is generally interest in making his movies from every studio in town, so we will go with the one that seems to be the right fit for the project. Paramount and Vanilla Sky was a perfect example of having the right movie at the right studio. We were very fortunate to have been set up there on this one. They believed in and were fans of the movie even when critics that didn’t understand it were bitching. They really understood the film throughout the whole process, right up to the DVD release. Once the script is nearly finished, we will begin the casting process with Gail Levin. Gail has cast our last three films and is undoubtedly the best in the business. Not only is she a genius, but she makes the casting process one of the most fun aspects of the entire process. About halfway into the casting process we will be in serious pre-production, hiring a line producer and production manager to work on schedules and budget issues. From there, casting and pre-production will run right up to our first day of shooting. Once we begin filming, we have essentially left the planet. We disappear into a seemingly endless schedule of early days, late nights and constant travel.
The shooting process is strange, fatiguing and exhilarating all at once. Seeing Cameron’s words, and all of our ideas and conversations finally come to life is an astounding thing. It enables us to work so hard for so long. As we are shooting, editorial has also begun to cut scenes together. Getting a fully cut scene delivered to the set only a day or two after it has been shot is another one of my favorite things. I remember one of the first scenes we saw cut together on Vanilla Sky was of Tom Cruise’s suicide. Its beauty and sadness overwhelmed me. I felt that Vanilla Sky would be a historically important film from that day forward, and I still do. After a three month pre-production period and a four month shooting period, we then retreat into the editorial process for anywhere between three months and eight, depending on when our release date is. Towards the end of the editorial process we start to test screen it for audiences. Now, there is a lot of controversy over the testing process, mainly by people that don’t make movies and don’t understand what it’s for. The great advantage you have to testing is very simple. By the time you have had your head in a movie for a couple of years and have seen it fifty times in the editing bay and on the sound mixing stage, it’s time to show it to some fresh eyes. Their comments, be they insightful and helpful or completely wrong, are interesting and often very helpful. I can’t say audience reaction has ever dramatically changed one of Cameron’s cuts, but we have learned a lot from them.
JARBOE: What determines further editing if these test audiences do not react as hoped?
SCOTT: Overwhelmingly unanimous problems that the audience have might determine further editing, but ultimately, if Cameron doesn’t agree, he still has final cut. The testing process, I imagine, can be disastrous for directors that don’t have final cut of their films. The studios can use insipid audience comments as ammo against a director if they are at odds with each other. Fortunately, we aren’t in that situation, so the testing process is very good for us. Whether we test a film once or a hundred times, what you see in the theater is still going to be Cameron Crowe’s cut.
JARBOE: I’d like for you to talk a bit about the concept of “style over substance” coupled with the low attention span syndrome that supposedly everybody now has. With the advent of technology and fast cutting, etc.,there is a marked change in the style of films today to the classic dialogue scenes of, say, the films of Howard Hawks.
SCOTT: Yeah, I know you are a Hawks fan and a Bergman fan… I like to think Cameron’s films have more in common with Hawks, Sturges, Cukor, Lubitsch, Wilder and the masters of dialogue and character driven comedy. Regarding the quick cut, Gen-X style that is very popular now, I think it is just people playing with new technology and new toys. Listen to every pop record that came out in 1983. Everything is drenched in cheesy synthesizers. People complained about it even then, but you can’t preventartists from becoming enamoured with technology. Personally, I think Aronofsky could have cooked down Requiem… (a great film) a little more and been a little less groovy with his cutting and angles — but people seem to love it! So, it’s a piece that is of its time. There are always a multitude of alternatives to sexy and self-aware cutting and shooting. Goget Jesus’ Son immediately! Fantastic! Rushmore, Ghost World, Waking Life, etc, etc.
JARBOE: Films are getting faster and faster and with so much “rapid fire assault.”Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) said: “Our own ever-growing predicament: there is nothing so boring in life, let alone cinema, as the boredom of being excited all the time.”
SCOTT: Reminds me of that line from Pavement’s ‘Brighten The Corners’:”I swung my fiery sword, I vent my spleen at the Lord. He is abstract and bored – too much milk and honey…” It’s an absolute truth.
JARBOE: What is the “Hollywood system”?
SCOTT: Uh, I guess the system of the five or six major studios and the two or three major agencies. Plus big money stars and producers. But, there is also an “Indie System.” Think Hollywood is cliquish? Hang with some Sundancers, Telluriders, Slamdancers or any other defined group sometime. If you think a director sitting out in the middle of Nebraska is going to be less egomaniacal than a guy in Burbank, you are deluded. If anything, they tend to have “big fish in a small pond” syndrome. The great thing about the Hollywood System is it’s so competitive, there are about a million people that will cheer the second you get booted out on your ass. It’s ugly on twenty different surfaces, but also kind of remarkable and fun.
JARBOE: How difficult is it to make an art house film within the Hollywood system?
SCOTT: Well, I can say that, had it not been for the reputations of Cameron and Tom, Vanilla Sky would have never happened. It’s so complex and so incredibly bizarre that I think Hollywood wouldn’t touch it. So, the answer is generally very difficult. Look at the genius Tim Burton. This is a guy who should be making living abstract painting on film. Instead, he’s got a bunch of talking monkeys running around. David Lynch is getting by lately, but long gone are images that have Eraserhead’s power. I’m hoping that some upstart will make an art house movie that has the same success as Blair Witch and that doors are opened to more expressionists and impressionists. If I could ive a multi million-dollar budget to Guy Maddin, The Brothers Quay or Stan Brackage, nothing would make me happier. This discussion is again, why Vanilla Sky is such a Hollywood anomaly. I want to cry at the end when Tom jumps to his death (life) to the strains of a bootleg recording of Sigur Ros as images of Betty Boop death cartoons and children playing go whizzing by. I’m still a little stunned it happened. Anyway, I’ll stop hailing Vanilla Sky. I just watched it yesterday for a final dvd thing and it just caught me by surprise how moved I was. Sorry. It’s just exciting to be able to putout such an abstract canvas of ideas on such a large scale.
JARBOE: Tell me something not commonly known about Cameron Crowe.
SCOTT: He likes Joy Division. How and why I have no idea, but it makes me very happy. Oh, and he’s not into avocados.
JARBOE: Hmm. What are some perks of your job?
SCOTT: Meeting people that I have respected for years. Meeting Warren from His Name Is Alive was a big deal for me. Their record Home Is In Your Head is one of my all time favorites. We put them on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack. Drinking with Sigur Ros, Hanging with Diaz and Cruz. Doing two movies with Tom…with more to be made. Talking about film with Kurt Russell. Meeting Phil Hendrie. Becoming friends with Fairuza Balk. Meeting the most beautiful woman in the entire world — Tilda Swinton .Actually, I could talk about the perks for about a week. I’m really blessed.
JARBOE: A playful question: What is it like having access to the world’s most beautiful women?
SCOTT: Humbling. And it makes me very self – conscious about my own appearance.
JARBOE: And what about dating in Hollywood?
SCOTT: Great! But, I don’t have enough time off. It’s a bit of a straight guy’s paradise that I think too many guys take for granted. I don’t know how it is for women. Probably not as good. I meet a lot of doofusy guys.
JARBOE: Those guys are on the EAST Coast, too. 😉 How did you think it would be when you first arrived in Hollywood compared to the way you view the film industry there now?
SCOTT: I can’t say that I can talk about the way I thought it would be in Hollywood, because I really had no preconceptions about Los Angeles or the film business. I come from a very small town in rural Illinois and truly had no idea what to expect. I had never even been out here for more than a couple of days before I actually moved out here permanently. We all have stereotypes of SoCal and “Hollywood,” but, as to what it would be like to actually move here and start a new life, I was absolutely clueless. I knew nothing and nobody. What I have found is that the film industry, and Los Angeles as a whole, is incredibly diverse. I have met many brilliant and wonderful people out here, as well as many fools. But, the same can be said for virtually everywhere you go. I suppose the film industry1s most unique attribute is that it collects people from around the globe, who alter their lives to come out to LA and follow irrational and unlikely dreams. Some to staggering success, most to compromised complacency and many to utter disaster. It’s a really volatile environment.
JARBOE: What have you had to ‘overcome’ in Hollywood?
SCOTT: Total ignorance. I’m from a farm town in Illinois, so I started from scratch. No knowledge – No contacts – No nothing. So ignorance was my biggest hurdle. The learning curve out here is massive. And yes, I’m still hurdling!