Back before The War Department was The War Department, she worked those long tedious hours as a production dog. First as an assistant to the producer, followed by working in commercials as a production assistant and an assistant production coordinator. Then she returned to features as an apprentice (assistant to the assistant) editor.
At some point, she decided there’d been way too much assisting going on in her young career.
So she picked up a camera and returned to her studies. This time with her sights set on a career in photography. And when she eventually returned to a production job she was no longer anybody’s assistant. Instead she carried a pair of blimped Nikons and the unassisted moniker of still photographer.
One of her earliest gigs was on an extremely low budget flick called Eddie Presley, about a down-on-his luck Elvis impersonator. There was very little notable about the movie aside from it landing as an early title on Quentin Tarantino’s resume. He cameo’d in white as Asylum Attendant #2. In return, star Duane Whitaker appeared in Quentin’s seminal Pulp Fiction as Maynard, the evil and greedy pawn shop owner who met a medieval end.
I recall the picture having its wrap party at Hollywood’s Cat and Fiddle pub. There I met Tarantino and congratulated him on the upcoming release of his debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, which was already receiving significant buzz. He was gracious and easy to chat with, sharing stories and cigarettes with all comers.
Having already been credited with a hit movie in Die Hard 2, I was made to feel like a celebrity of sorts every time I visited Eddie Presley, be it the set or the the wrap party where I couldn’t turn two feet without producer Tom De Nolf introducing me and my singular credit as if it were attached to me like toilet paper stuck to my shoe. It was embarrassing both then and today. Some say I’m too sensitive and that pairing my name with what I’ve professionally accomplished is a compliment. Maybe. But that assumes my resume is more important than my brother-in-law’s who, back then, used to slug it out every day managing a Carl’s Jr. in Bakersfield. I asked him once if anybody ever introduced him as Ron-who-runs-a-Carl’s-Jr.-franchise.
Ron laughed and answered, “No. Why would they?”
“Because some might say that surviving and succeeding and raising a young family in Bakersfield is an accomplishment,” I argued.
My brother-in-law thought I was joking. But I wasn’t. Just making a point.
Back to the wrap party where the lovely young War Department had, at a distance, recognized someone she remembered from her undergrad studies in Boston. In fact, back in the day, she’d starred in one of his student films; his very first and her very last. Where directing may have been the Master Wannabe’s primary interest, acting was surely not hers. At least it wasn’t after that singular and unspectacular experience.
It was a half hour or so after when the film’s producer introduced me to Master Wannabe. Because the producer hadn’t ceased linking my name with my mighty one credit, the wannabe movie director came off impressed and an instant fan. He was both loaded with charm and inquisitive as hell, pumping me for experience and information. It was in the middle of the wannabe’s ass-kiss-a-thon that I was interrupted by another reveler seeking my ear. It was at this precise juncture that my wife had sneaked up behind me in that dark corner of the Cat and Fiddle. With my eyes and attention momentarily on the warbling guest, The War Department decided it was an opportune time to catch up with her old, college director.
“Hey, (Master Wannabe.)” said my wife. “Been awhile. Remember me?”
At the sound of my wife’s distinctive voice, I couldn’t help but split my focus. And what I witnessed I’ve never quite forgotten. Master Wannabe, who seconds earlier had been engaged in a full, frontal charm offensive on yours truly, had flicked a mental switch and toggled into the time-worn Hollywood posture of I’m-a-Somebody-and-You’re-Obviously-Not.
Master Wannabe a somebody?
Not quite in mine, but in his own eyes he was already on the fast track to Wunderkind City, having directed a thirty minute episode of a cable anthology series. Hardly a career maker, but a credit nonetheless.
To say Master Wannabe was dismissive to the woman I love would be a gross distortion to understatement. And since he’d recognized the young War Department as no more than someone nothing he knew in college and not my wife, he’d given himself permission to snob her out before crushing her underfoot like a spent Marlboro smoked down to the filter.
Then before I could rescue my wife from the prick, he’d spotted someone more worthy of his presence and quickly slipped away into the ever-thickening crowd.
While I seethed all the way home, the War Department tried to remain philosophical. The more she ran back the tapes in her memory the more she recalled that Master Wannabe had always been an insufferable douche. Like most quality people, she’d let time and distance degrade her negative recollections of those made from lesser fiber.
“After all,” I remember her saying, “We were in college. People are supposed to grow up.”
“Or grow into their true characters,” I said.
Over the years that followed, Master Wannabe cleverly played the Hollywood game. He was either lucky or wise enough to attach himself to the right screenplay at the right time. His debut feature was well-timed and, though not much at the box office, garnered him some critical heat and a barrel full of studio offers. With his next picture he scored a decent-sized hit. Master Wannabe suddenly found himself on the first page of a lot of producer’s director lists.
“Why do all the assholes get ahead in the world?” bemoaned the War Department.
“What comes around,” I would say. “Karma bites most of ‘em in the ass.”
“Most of ‘em,” she said. “But not all.” After which she’d reel off a list of enormously successful SOBs.
Well, a man can dream, can’t he?
There was a period of maybe five or six years that when discussing possible directors on my projects with producers, I would merely reply, “Anybody but Master Wannabe.”
“Why?” they’d often reply.
“Plenty of more directors on the director tree,” I’d say. “Let’s try harder and pick somebody else.”
Eventually my requests to steer my screenplays away from Master Wannabe were met with more and more understanding. The director’s reputation for unchecked arrogance had begun to spread like a fungus. He’d followed up his hit flick with a series of go-movies, all of which he’d somehow reversed back into development deals.
“How’s your Fox picture?” I once asked a writer friend whose name is usually linked with a famous golden statuette that rhymes with Nascar.
“Alright until the studio attached a director,” he said flatly.
“Who’d you get?”
“(Master Wannabe),” he replied with a grunt in his gullet. “What a dick. And he’s already sucking all the green-light out of it. We’re doomed.”
As you might’ve already guessed, the feature offers eventually dried up for the not-so-charming director. He’s since found journeyman status in television where he continues to solidly toil. And considering that in TV most directors find themselves working for writers, my guess is that Master Wannabe’s my-shit-smells-better-than-yours attitude has been body-checked into submission.
Apply what philosophical justice you like to this way-too-common tale. Be it about Karma or climbing up and down ladders or setting a match to bridges already traveled, it’s the same damned lesson.
Be nice to the War Department.
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