Man, have I been lucky! Not only did I get to have a “Hollywood career”, that career allowed me to work with people whose film work I adored. It’s a stone cold fact: I’ve loved working with my film making idols! Looking back at my TV-film writing-producing career, the fact that I had a career blows me away. But, that I got to work with my film making idols – and loved it? That’s insane!
Circumstances lined up just so. That’s how I explain getting to write and produce HBO’s hit TV series “Tales From The Crypt“. Crypt was an anomaly. In the early 1990’s when we made the show, the TV world and the feature film world were two separate things. Occasionally, a Tom Hanks or a Robin Williams would cross over from a successful TV show to a whole film career.
Ironically, I got to work with Tom Hanks. The first thing Tom ever directed was an episode of Crypt. What a delight to work with! He’s a consummate pro! But, he wasn’t one of my idols. Working on Crypt made meeting my idols possible though. And damn if my luck didn’t hold out. I got to meet two people I “idolized”.
A Movie Nerd’s Dream Job
Now, I’m not into stars. I’m much more interested in working with famous people than in meeting them. But, if we work together, I expect everyone to bring their very best to the table. No one gets to rest on their laurels.
As I describe in “The How NOT To Make A Movie Podcast: The Making Of Bordello Of Blood” (I just wrapped season one – a season two is coming very shortly!), I grew up a movie nerd. I loved classic Hollywood movies. Adored the Marx Brothers and WC Fields. Laurel and Hardy’s “Big Business” is seminal! It’s comedy brilliance! I also grew up a fan of the old EC Comics and Mad Magazine, both published by William F. Gaines.
Getting Crypt put all those worlds together. And they paid me on top of it!
Crypt’s executive producers included four huge feature film makers: Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Bob Zemeckis and Walter Hill. Being on HBO meant our TV show didn’t have to play by network TV rules. We could have nudity and all kinds of creative violence. Our EP’s and our network both expected every thirty minute Crypt episode to be a “mini feature film” with feature film production values and using feature film actors (instead of TV actors). The one caveat? We were going to do that on a TV show budget.
As I mentioned, Tom Hanks was among the feature film talent who did our little TV show. Tom directed (and acted in) the episode “None But The Lonely Heart” starring Treat Williams, Frances Sternhagen and Henry Gibson. I was excited to meet Ms. Sternhagen. Like me, she graduated from Vassar College’s Drama Department.
Michael J. Fox also directed for the first time on Crypt. But “more experienced” directors also did episodes: Billy Friedkin (“The Exorcist”), John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”, “7 Days In May”, “Birdman Of Alcatraz”) and our EP’s Bob Zemeckis, Dick Donner and Walter Hill. Crypt had access to everyone. And we did it without money – we didn’t have any to spend.
Stars I Have Known…
When I was at Vassar in the late 70’s, we wore out multiple copies of Meatloaf’s album “Bat Outta Hell”, dancing. And then, I hired Meatloaf to act in an episode of Crypt! It’s the “What’s Cookin” episode starring Christopher Reeve, Bess Armstrong and Judd Nelson. “Rocky Horror Picture Show” was another movie we all loved. Tim Curry was so afraid of the role we offered him on Crypt (playing three members of the same family in the “Death Of Some Salesmen” episode) that he had to say yes!
I personally wore out taped copies of “Singin’ In the Rain” watching the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number. I hired Donald O’Connor for an episode of Crypt! “A Clockwork Orange” was another classic movie I watched as often as I could. I got to work with both Malcolm MacDowell (he played Alex) and Aubrey Morris (Alex’s guidance counsellor Mr. Deltoid).
Another movie this movie nerd grew up adoring: “The Graduate“. Being a writer, while I love everyone’s work in the movie, somehow I love Buck Henry’s adaptation just a little bit more. I hired Buck Henry – as an actor – to do Crypt. While I didn’t write the script for Buck’s episode, every word we shot still had to pass through me. If I didn’t write every episode, I rewrote many. That was my job – to Cryptify every Crypt script.
Buck appeared in the “Beauty Rest” episode. A struggling actress (Mimi Rogers) hears about a big acting opportunity from a roommate. The actress murders the roommate and fills in for her at the gig – as a model at an undertaker’s convention. She learns – a little too late – that the undertakers need a dead body and she just stole that part from her roomie. Buck played the convention’s Emcee (kinda like Joel Grey’s character in “Cabaret”). In the end, we wrote a song for the Emcee. That is, I wrote the song’s lyrics.
Putting those words into Buck Henry’s mouth – and then watching him speak them? That was transcendent. I put words into the mouth of a writer whose work I respected deeply. Wow.
Idol number was one of my bosses: Bob Z. Almost everything I know about the collaborative process, I learned at that man’s feet. The auteur theory can go to hell. It’s rubbish! Unless the director is also writing, lighting, handling the camera and doing all the cutting, he’s not any kind of “auteur”. He’s a collaborator. With veto power. But a collaborator above all.
Bob has a genius for getting everyone to “invest” in what he’s doing. By “invest”, I mean, make Bob’s project theirs too.
When Gil and I took over Crypt in 1991, that third season of thirteen episodes was supposed to be Crypt’s last season. The EP’s had lost interest. Season two went a million bucks over budget (the Crypt partners never secured a deficit partner); each of the partners had to reach into his pocket to repay HBO. But Gil and I re-invented Crypt. We re-invented the Crypt Keeper (he, really, is the franchise even more than the comics themselves). Mid-way through the season, sensing Crypt’s renewed energy and focus (and our ability to keep to the budget), HBO ordered more seasons.
That meant episode thirteen – Bob’s wouldn’t be the last episode as originally planned, it would be celebration instead of Crypt as a TV show like no other. Bob wanted “Yellow” to be an homage to a movie he loved while a film student at USC: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”, a WWI story starring Kirk Douglass. The show’s previous producers had hired feature writers to adapt the comic “Yellow” – a WWI story – into a TV script. The problem: the script sucked.
Bob wanted Kirk Douglass for the episode. That was ambitious. Kirk Douglass didn’t do TV. To get Kirk, the script needed to be great. Bob turned to me – since that was my job. Make the scripts great. The script got Kirk and Bob became a fan. More importantly, he saw ME as one of HIS collaborators.
The more I think of it, the more I realize: I got to work with a third idol: Bill Gaines. As I said, I grew up loving what Bill Gaines created – EC comics and Mad Magazine. I loved the anarchic spirit of the EC comics. The noir chaos. Mad Magazine was a kind of Comedy Holy Bible.
At the beginning of Crypt season four (my second on the show), Gil and I were invited to lunch with Joel Silver in his trailer on the set of Lethal Weapon 2. Joel had a guest: Bill Gaines.
Joel loved to screw with people. When Gil and I entered the trailer, we were surprised that Bill Gaines was there – that we were about to meet him – and that we’d be lunching together. Gil and I started off balance.
Then Joel tells Bill “If you hate what these guys are doing, I want you to tell them. Go ahead – right to their faces!”
I’d watched Joel set up people before. I watched him let an accountant slowly hang himself with lies before lowering the boom (and firing him with cause). Gil and I both felt like we’d been ambushed. Except Bill Gaines laughed uproariously. “Hate it?” No. Bill loved what we were doing to his babies and he literally gave us his blessing to keep on doing it.
I have zero memory of what we had for lunch that day. I’m still riding that high though.