From Mr. Rogers to Mr. Blonde
by Gregory Small
The crew was set up in a magnificent sunroom across from a magnificent marble staircase in a magnificent 19th century mansion. The subjects we were to shoot – a hip English professor and his eager class at Brown University – were ready to go. I was a student there, but not a part of that class. Instead, I was a production assistant for a p.r. film the administration was making to wind its way into alumni hearts and wallets.
My payment was course credit. So, arguably, it was my first job in the movie business. And it was also my first real experience with a producer, in all his or her frazzled, demanding, bombastic, logic-manipulating glory. His name was Sweetums McNiceguy. But of course that’s a fake name because he still might hunt me down and kill me.
Since then, I’ve been a producer myself, and I know firsthand how intensely pressurized the job can be. How you can suddenly start sleepwalking out of the blue, and wake up one night standing in your bathroom with a towel rod in your white-knuckled grip that you’ve wrenched off the wall and twisted into a pretzel. (I’m not kidding.) So I understand McNiceguy had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He was understandably upset, therefore, when the A.D. finally reached him to sheepishly report no one could find the key to the closet with all the electrical boxes, so we couldn’t power our lights.
When McNiceguy finally swept in to save the day, he was more Leatherface than Lone Ranger. While it wasn’t a chainsaw we heard, the ball-peen clack of his steel-toed cowboy boots on the marble entryway was nearly as chilling. He was probably 6’3”, gunfighter lean, wearing a dark Brooks Brothers suit that made our work shirts and jeans look like rags he’d use to wipe the blood off his bruised knuckles after he punched whoever was responsible for the screw-up. Adding to his mystique was the fact that he was ex-Green Beret. And so you couldn’t forget it, above his giant mahogany desk was a massive painting of himself in full dress Green Beret uniform. To gaze on it was to know the feeling just before you had your heart ripped out and eaten in front of you.
The only thing that didn’t quite fit was his Prince Valiant haircut. Yeah, his gray hair was shorn in this bizarrely anomalous bangs and side-slabs deal. But, the whole effect was strangely intoxicating, as if he was daring you to question it. And, believe me, no one ever did.
So in he storms, jaw set with acidic resolve. The anxious director scurried up, “Did you bring the key?” McNiceguy strode past and straight down the hall to the offending closet door. “I brought the big key,” he muttered. Without ever coming to a full stop, he reared back and launched a single side-kick square in its antique deadbolt. That door may have been 3 inches thick of solid wood, built back in a time when they really knew how to build doors, but, on that day, it exploded like it was a snowflake made out of popsicle sticks. We got the shot.
Why then, I was to ask myself a few weeks later, was I lulled into anything resembling comfort with McNiceguy? It was hardly the only time I was witness to his take-no-prisoners brand of producing. And yet, one day I found myself sitting across from his he-man desk, struggling not to let my eyes drift up to that oppressive portrait behind him, while McNiceguy questioned me about some other P.A.s who were no-shows. It was the end of the semester, I reminded him, and everyone was crazy with last-minute cramming. In fact, I ventured, I too was insanely jammed, and needed to taper back on my hours. He nodded with paternal understanding. “Riiight. Christ yeah, I remember that feeling. Crunch time…” He sat back with a nostalgic smile.
Then he leaned forward across his desk and went in an instant from Mr. Rogers to Mr. Blonde. “Listen to me, you pampered punk,” he spat. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” And he launched into a tirade of terror, invoking every bile-crusted curse word I’d ever heard plus about 137 I hadn’t that must have come from some ass-reeming dictionary known only to Green Berets. Ten minutes later I was a puddle. An apologetic puddle. The fact was, he was right. A nicer guy would have made it clear without the blindsiding evisceration, but I couldn’t argue with his underlying point: I had made a commitment.
I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep those next few weeks. But the film got finished. And, somehow, so did my coursework.
I think about McNiceguy from time to time, and wonder what was the lesson learned. Were I more cynical, I would say: Never show your weakness. In his office that day, I did naively let him catch me off-guard. A more mature me would have spotted his ruse a mile away. Still, even a couple of decades in Hollywood hasn’t turned all my interactions into calculations. I’m not wired to be an agent. (Just joking! I love you guys!)
Fessing up to a human frailty or three has enabled me to build a business network of people who trust me because they know I don’t bullshit.
So, nah, McNiceguy didn’t teach me not to show weakness. What he did teach me, though, was to never commit to something I couldn’t complete. Still, I have to admit, I do seem to slip into the occasional fugue state and hear myself say “yes” when I should be saying “NOOO!” As I mentioned, I have human frailties. But, if I ever meet a potential employer with an oversized, steely-eyed portrait of him or herself staring down on me, you can bet I’m heading straight for the door. And, if I find it locked, I might just use the big key.Tags: Brown University, Entertainment industry, Gregory Small, Hollywood, Honor your commitment, Life lessons, Producer, Production, Production assistant