I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – The Beach Boys
…they say I got brains, but they ain’t doin’ me no good. I wish they could…
Late August 2003. On the set of Red Light Runners, Harvey Keitel kneels by the altar. Mike Madsen walks slowly up the aisle and kneels next to him. Keitel is first to speak.
Have you come to kill me dyood ? he says
That’s how he says it. Dyood. The word I wrote is dude. It’s my screenplay and we are in The Church Of Our Most Holy Redeemer, Exmouth St, Clerkenwell. I cannot believe my ears. The scene continues and finishes with Madsen walking back out. The line-up is finished and the actors go back to their trailers while the lights are assembled and the camera positions established. Nick Egan the director and I have a quick conflab. Did you hear what he said ? Dyood ?? What is going on ? Nick decides that as the writer, I will go back to Harvey’s trailer and ‘discuss his problems with him’. So a message is sent via a runner, and five minute later I’m knocking on Keitel’s wagon.
the church interior in Exmouth St
His PA invites me in. Within a minute it is very clear that Harvey has not read the script. He thinks he is playing an Englishman, and he thinks we talk funny. We clear that up. It’s dude. DUDE. He asks me about another line. I explain that his character, Sandy, an ex-CIA priest with a Fagin-esque gang of street kids at his beck and call, is gay. He is horrified. It gets weird. I decide to leave and get myself some breakfast.
Director Nick Egan
I report back to Nick and Michael Wearing and we at least have Mike Madsen on our side. Eventually we get a decent scene, after much huffing and puffing. I don’t think we turned over until just before lunch though. By now Harvey is looking over at me after they cut each take and asking “was that OK?“. It is all quite surreal. But Red Light Runners was a very strange experience. See earlier blogs My Pop Life #144 and My Pop Life #145 for the early part of the story. Nick Egan was very cool and allowed me to sit by the monitors with headphones on, despite the producer Nigel whispering in his ear “Why are you letting Ralph sit there? It looks weak”. Nick told him to fuck off. The central creative team, me, Nick and Michael Wearing were tight, and we weren’t about to be split up. Various weird things were happening, some of which I knew about and some I didn’t. But day by day, we were making a film. It was thrilling. Jenny was cast. I was staying in Nick Egan’s flat a couple of days each week rather than slog down to Brighton every day.
Mike Madsen & Harvey Keitel
The following day we had to shoot a later scene – Madsen killing Keitel by shooting him through the confession box grille. It was now clear that one of Harvey’s techniques was to extend the rehearsal part of the day for as long as physically possible, for literally hours at a time, so that we would go over schedule and he would get an extra day’s wages. It’s an old shitty trick and he was running with it. So tedious. Madsen was getting irritable too, but he held it down. The other issue was very simple : Harvey didn’t want to die onscreen. He was trying to talk his way out of it at one point and we had to stand firm on the script – we’re shooting this scene, now. Oh yes we are ! It was truly mental. Eventually we got it in the can, a day later than scheduled. Later, much later when Harvey had wrapped and fucked off to Italy while the hotel bill for Claridges was run up – he’d left all his stuff in there – we were shooting another scene in a hotel when Madsen talks to Harvey on the phone. On one take Madsen lost it and said something along the lines of “I’m glad you’ve wrapped Harvey because you’re a fucking pain in the ass, not only that but I killed you and everybody is gonna know that I killed you, so fuck you.”
There is a Hollywood actor pecking-order of those who have killed, and those who have been killed. And by whom. Think about it.
the green dome of the British Museum from Centrepoint roof
Earlier Mike Madsen and I had shot a scene on the balcony at the top of Centrepoint at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road overlooking the British Museum, where we’d planned a major heist (I was also in the cast). We’d done car chases through central London, down the Embankment, Blackfriars all the way to the Millenium Dome, then an unused leftover from the celebrations. We’d flown helicopters over the gherkin building and the river. We’d shot the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton at a swanky art opening with the cognoscenti, a Turkish arms dealer off Green Lanes in Haringey, and a council block in Southwark with yardie gangs. I’d had a long chat with Tricky on the top of a London bus (see My Pop Life #61) discussing Chuck D, Public Enemy and Elvis Presley (Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me) before I offered him my headphones and played him Todd Rundgren‘s Just Another Onionhead from A Wizard, A True Star one of my top ten LPs. I told you Red Light Runners was strange.
We’d had a Red Light Runners heist meeting in Centrepoint too, on the day when the bond company sent a man onto the set. An interesting mix of actors : me, Madsen, Cillian Murphy, Kate Ashfield, Tricky, Joe Van Moyland, Heathcote Williams. The DP Nick Knowland was great but (like Brian Wilson) deaf in one ear. The Bond man was obsessed with the two Nicks not apparently communicating properly and demanded that one of them had to go. We carried on and went to another bond company. All films need a bond company to insure against loss, otherwise…well. Let’s say it was a warning.
Chiswick – the CIA headquarters. My friend Doreene Blackstock did a set visit. Jonathan Ross and Film 2003 were there, filming interviews with the main cast and director. Wossy was a big supporter of the project, and there was a buzz around the film by now. We’d been filming for four weeks with two units: the main unit, and the car and stunt unit. We had eight weeks of stuff in the can. Roy Scheider was in town playing the CIA chief and lending an air of gravitas and utter professionalism to a scene with Madsen, Crispin Glover and Rich Hall in the HQ.
Roy Scheider, Rich Hall, Crispin Glover – the CIA
Crispin had his raw foods thanks to a lady from Birmingham we’d found specially. But the producer Michael Casey wasn’t happy. Stuff was going on behind the scenes, some kind of power struggle. We still weren’t bonded. Casey and his wife decided that day that they were personally taking over the funding of the film, and sacked all the co-producers. They started talking about actors using the tube to get to work, sacking all the drivers, cutting corners. Meanwhile none of us had been paid yet. Normally on a movie the principles – the director, designer, writer, producers – get paid their fee in full on the first day of principal photography. That day had come and gone. It was four weeks ago in fact. And Chris the designer decided that he wasn’t coming in on Monday unless he was paid. It became clear that the caterer had been feeding the unit with his own money. The word went round the set – we wouldn’t be shooting on Monday, but on Wednesday. The schedule meant that Monday was in Salisbury, blowing up a church in the Iowa cornfields, the opening sequence and Jenny’s scenes. Jenny had cancelled her last week on the Vagina Monologues in order to be in Red Light Runners. We also had Peter O’Toole lined up for Salisbury Cathedral. Now it wobbled.
Tuesday another phone call came – we wouldn’t shoot on Wednesday but the following Monday. Then another call. Then another. Then another. After two months of this Nick Egan flew back to Los Angeles, leaving his suits and luggage in the rented flat where he’d been staying and which was now locked by the landlords because they hadn’t been paid either.
Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself and what goes wrong ?
“O cuando sere? Un dia sere” (“When will I be? One day I will be”)
Sometimes I feel very sad…
Originally I chose 2+2=5 for this story, because that was the feeling, and it was a 2003 song. But it’s a Thom Yorke song about society, about passivity and 1984 so it was rejected for an ironic Hey Ya by Outkast, also a 2003 hit. But it wasn’t right either. Next up was Bowie’s Quicksand because that line
Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief…
was my primary feeling to emerge from this fiasco. But that song doesn’t line up either and deserves better than this story. I didn’t want to write another film, or a play, or anything. My friends in Stomp – Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas actually did commission a script in November from me, like a soft landing, that’s for another story, and after that another half-hearted film which flickered briefly and fell. But my heart wasn’t in it, and in many ways still isn’t. How easily discouraged I am. How fragile the ego. Where’s the resilience, the iron will, the inner strength. No idea. I squashed it I think. I felt weak, I felt destroyed to be honest. Devastated.
In the end I’ve gone for a Pet Sounds song from 1966, a very personal brave lyric from Tony Asher and Brian Wilson about Brian feeling that he was too advanced musically for his band The Beach Boys and that he was literally living in the wrong era. It doesn’t fit either, but many of the lines kill me to this day, and the feeling is right. It’s a mournful, rich, delicate ethereal song that is somehow true. By then the Brighton Beach Boys, my beautiful tribute band were learning this number and preparing to unleash it with string quartet and horns and full harmonies. It’s a tricky beast to learn but when we committed to it, it was and is glorious. A mighty tune about disappointment, with oneself, with life, and everything.
Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into…
I had the golden ticket but it was fake. No film. No money. No explanation.
The American actors got paid – Mike Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider, Crispin Glover. The Screen Actors Guild deal protects actors from this kind of thing, which isn’t actually that rare sadly. Equity, the British equivalent of SAG, is hopeless. Since living in the USA I have found that the Unions here have far more power than their British counterparts.
I was told by Michael Wearing later as the phone calls became fewer that Casey and his wife had decided to take over, sack the entire crew and re-employ them on worse rates. As a hotel builder, which is what he did before becoming a “Film Producer”- sorry a little bit of sick just came into my mouth – this was his mode-d’emploi – sack the workforce and undercut their wages. It might work in the building trade in Portugal but it wasn’t going to wash in the film industry. Then they started hawking the film around to other co-producers but if you collapse a film half-way through without paying key personnel, you essentially own a debt. Who wants to buy that ? It was over and the hope dwindled week by week, like water wearing down a stone. It was a tunnel with no light at the end.
But things could always be worse. The designer, Chris, clearly had other issues. He was involved in a messy divorce apparently, and within weeks of the film closing down he had set light to a set building in our base at Three Mill Island, fire brigade were called but it was destroyed. He then shot and killed his son, and himself. Tragic.
The rest of us just carried on living, a little more cynical, a little more beaten down, a little more angry inside, but we carried on. Anyone working in the film industry – this business we call ‘show’ – has dozens of stories like this. I have at least a dozen. This one perhaps the worst. I still feel bitter about it. But it’s just a film after all. And I’m still here.
London now from the top of Centrepoint
And somehow matching this beautiful sad song with this moment of devastation makes me feel a little more healed. This is the power of music. If anyone knows and practises the healing power of music it is the fragile genius of Brian Wilson. This may be his best piece of work. In 2011, Brian said: “It was like saying: ‘Either I’m too far ahead of my time’ or ‘I’m not up to my time.’ … [The feeling has] stayed the same … a little bit, in some ways not … [but now] I do feel I was made for these times.“