Most filmmakers come up for awards at some time in their careers. When it has happened with me, and I’ve attended the ceremonies, it has usually been a fairly out-of-body/bizarre experience. Aided and abetted by the glitz and glamor of the Academy Awards, though, this particular experience took the cake.
I was one of the cameramen who worked on two documentary films that were nominated for the 61st Academy Awards, the year when Rain Man won. One was a film called Promises to Keep about homelessness in America and the other was Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie. Having shot two films both up for Oscar’s in the same year was surely a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me. But I wasn’t able to go to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C. where I was living at the time to attend the ceremony that year. To noone’s surprise, Marcel Ophul’s film about Klaus Barbie ended up winning. I decided that if, by chance, the opportunity ever came up another time to go, that I would do my best to attend.
Both of the nominated films that year were shot by more than a single cameraman; a fact that tends to lessen the glory. I usually turned down offers to be just another camera guy among many working on a film. Mostly, because it’s a very different experience to be on a film from the beginning all the way through. I’ll explain another time.
There were something like seven different cinematographers on the film Hotel Terminus but I was given the main title of Director of Photography. But, now that I think of it, maybe I just came first alphabetically. I always felt extra value should be bestowed upon all of the cameramen on that film because of its unusually long screen time. There were interviews with almost a hundred different people and it runs 4 hours and 27 minutes long.
Lest I give the wrong impression, here’s my explainer/disclaimer. Documentary films aren’t nominated for their cinematography. So no one ever gets an Academy Award specifically for having shot an Oscar winning doc. The film gets the award. Period. When, by bizarre coincidence, another project that I shot was nominated the next year, I decided that I had to go out to LA for the ceremony.
Fine Food, Fine Pastries
The film, Fine Food, Fine Pastries, Open 6-9 was a locally-shot, day-in-the-life styled documentary about a Washington D.C. family-run restaurant a block away from the Capitol. When it got nominated for an Oscar, we were all pretty surprised.
The awards that year were going to take place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion which was actually a much smaller space than the other venues where they often hold the Awards. So this meant that tickets were harder than usual to get. My friend David Petersen, the producer/director of the film, set out to get us tickets including two additional ones for the principal women who were featured in the film.
The most important thing to remember here is that at the time, the documentary side of the Academy Awards was a relatively unimportant aspect of the night. Documentaries were something they seemed to tolerate… if that. But that’s easily forgotten as soon as one is thrown in with all that glamour and bright lights. One quickly forgets one’s place in the pecking order of things. One starts believing that they actually belong there; there’s a sense of entitlement that fogs the brain.
It’s the same for me when on rare occasions I get the chance to fly first class or even business class on a plane. Once settled comfortably in a “better” seat — because first class usually boards the plane before the riffraff — I’ve caught myself watching “those poor people” lugging their children and extra carry-on bags and elbowing their way back to the crowded peoples’ wing of the plane. “I feel sorry for those poor people,” I’d think. (Never mind I fly coach 95% of the time.)
So the three of us who primarily worked on this film decided to rent a limo for the occasion. I already had a tux that I had to buy for filming at a presidential inaugural ball a few years before. Just to already have a tux that I personally owned gave me a leg-up on the entitlement thing: not one of these lowly rent-a-tux people. I used to look really good in a tux anyway, so there’s even more room for stepping away from my everyday reality that’s already built into this whole charade. I don’t have the right shoes, though. Hopefully, no one will notice.
For starters, we saved a little money on the limo, resulting in a kind of coach class limo cum limo driver. Who knew there were classes of limos, too? Kinda smelled stinky. It smelled perfumed — obviously to get rid of some awful previous smells. Don’t go there. Second class stars: that’s us. The Documentary Guys.
As we drove to the Pavillion, I don”t recognize this part of LA at all. Where are the palm trees? Where are the fancy mansions? You mean the theater is not located in Beverly Hills? Yuck.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but maybe second class limos had to take an unpublished “alternate” route.
We’re driving through Koreatown or something like that. Everyone has dogs and barbed wire fences. It’s dusty and poor and depressing. But we’re whipping thru the community in the limo wearing our tuxes. Hey Mr. Peace Corps working with poor people, you’ve come a long way! Yuck again.
I begin to think: we actually have a pretty good chance to win this thing. I’d gone to a screening of the other films up for the award this year the day before and I wasn’t all that impressed with the competition. We had a chance
The film is up for Best Picture that year were Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot, and Driving Miss Daisy. Billy Crystal was the host.
When I look out the window, we’re standing motionless in a really long line of limos — still in this really poor part of town. But along both sides of the street, there are gawkers standing around trying to catch glimpses of famous people thru the shaded windows of the limos. I crack the window. The hot outdoor sun immediately cuts into our overly-cooled environment.
It’s funny, though: it seems the gawker types have a way of knowing who’s famous and who’s not. And they don’t seem to be looking at us at all. How does that work anyway? Maybe they can tell we’re in a 2nd class limo
On planes, I notice that when I’m getting on a plane and working my way back economy class, I tend to check out the business class folks populating my route. I try to assess their situation:
(to myself) …Mmmm, that one is probably flying first class for the first time: they are acting entitled. People accustomed to the perks of first and business class seem to relax into it, taking their privilege for granted. Like that guy working on his laptop all spread out into the extra leg room. And that guy over there might actually be someone famous. Maybe a writer.
But then when I’m the one sitting in business, I try to figure out if others think I’m the famous one. Maybe they see through me and think I’m one of those people that got bumped up from economy for some lucky reason. Anyway, no one else seems to even care that I’m sitting in the better seat. Where’s my pre-flight drink anyway?
Now I catch the eye of someone along the street trying to spot the stars. And he’s looking at me trying to figure out where he may have seen me before. It’s a funny game that I’m now beginning to enjoy. I feel the need to look cool, like I am someone so he feels in turn that he made an important citing. There are certain responsibilities that come with privilege.
It’s really hot outside the limo. We’re still not moving.
We see people starting to abandon their cars and walk to the theater. Women with hair all up and “done,“ dressed to the nines in fancy-schmancy ballroom gowns (you know: the Academy Award thing) dresses hiked up so they can see the ground to know where they’re walking. Other women limp along carrying their spiked shoes and their matching handbags.
Just for the record, these are not stars. Stars just don’t get caught in situations like this (except in movies). These are all the “other” people who may have contributed in significant ways to the nominated films. The producer types will sit in the second tier of balcony seats. The “craft” people will sit in the level next. And the documentary types and all the rest will be in the “nosebleed” seats at the very top of the theater.
Gawkers loved watching the parade up the street!
We weren’t aware of being in any particular hurry. So we waited in the car.
I was taking the opportunity to get to know our driver. I wondered who he’d driven around before us. Seemed it was mostly rock group types. I recognized a few names. Whatever he said, he only further confirmed that we were in the B team limo. Funny thing was, the guy had a British accent. That usually means class, doesn’t it? Maybe his accent was Australian. That would make more sense.
When we finally pull up to the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, who would have thought that we’d arrive up during the height of Rush Hour at the Academy Award Festivities? Who knew there even was a rush hour? Millions of gawkers, it seemed, were constrained behind red velvet ropes. Cameras everywhere. Big lights were on, blasting onto the red carpet even though it was still daylight and very bright out. Very Hollywood.
I’d never thought much about this part of the scene. I figured we’d just go in and sit down and it would start and then our show would win. Or not. I’d see a few famous faces. Go home.
Now I notice all these people in the bleachers as well that line the walkway into the theater. Sitting in seats that went up a couple dozen rows! Someone later told me that many of them, I’ll call them the gawkers too, had camped out for days just waiting for this very moment. And they are psyched!
And now, so am I.
As we crack the limo door, our driver swiftly comes around to help. He had been trying to find someone famous that I would recognize that he’d driven – and he comes up with the 60’s rock group Asleep At the Wheel.
“You know, their lead singer! I forget his name.” So had I.
I say goodbye to him in a way that I think makes him think that I was impressed. (We’ve grown close at this point: he’s obviously people just like us. We may not be famous, but we’re still nice.
As soon as my feet hit the ground, I get a strong dose: a combination of sudden heat, blinding sun, noisy, throbbing fans and the media everywhere. I’m confused, dazed, lose track of my friends and wonder for a Nano second if all these people might be cheering for me? Because (a) here I am and (b) they’re certainly looking at me and (c) they’re absolutely screaming and clapping. (Where would they have seen our little documentary film? That’s simply amazing! )
We duck into the crowd, heading in.
Someone from a news station catches my eye and waves me over. (Maybe they recognized me?) But as it quickly became apparent, they had me confused with someone else… perhaps they thought I was Richard Gere? (I’ve been told I resemble him.)
Next along both sides of the red carpet is a line-up of “local” TV stations looking for interviews. So, for example, Detroit has a crew there and if any film or star has the slightest thing to do with Detroit, somehow they find each other and they’ll do a quick interview right there with people screaming all around them.
Another time I’m waved over.
“Who are you?”
“Well, I shot a documentary film about a family-run restaurant … blah blah.”
I’m fairly certain that my eyes lowered to the ground when I said the word “documentary”.
“OK, Thanks.” He quickly waved me off. It was as if I’d said “You know in the film Marian’s Other Baby, when they dropped the baby? Well, I created the sound effect when the baby hits the ground.”
“Move on, buddy. You’re nobody.”
Now I’m moving inside as quickly as I can. This scene is borderline ugly. Mostly because I know that I’m not worthy. But there’s a logjam from all the people (who are somebody) who are stopping to give those quick interviews. Here we are basking in all this glory, but clearly without much of a rating.
Even if the documentary we made ends up winning, I won’t necessarily even go up on stage. We hadn’t discussed this. Maybe we should have. I’m sure it would have been fine with Dave who was a really inclusive kind of guy. Maybe I’ll just tag along and be there. You know: they tear open the envelope: “…and the winner of this year’s best documentary film, is … (tear, tear)….Fine Food, Fine Pastries!!! And there I am up on the podium with them. They’ll have to thank me publically, won’t they?
“And none of this would have been possible without the vision and artistry of our director of photography…who brought meaning and beauty to our…..”
But I’m now quite a bit behind my friends and stuck in a people jam. I manage to remember at least where I am and to try to cop a few star sightings while I’m here.
And they abound! No “Where’s Waldo” here. It’s like Mad Magazine when they did those two page folds and all of the people are famous… “Hey, there’s Marilyn Monroe, there’s Donald Duck, there’s JFK!”
In fact, I’m the only one who, it seems isn’t a star. They all look like famous people anyway
I’m walking (and I’m not making this up) with Darrel Hannah in front of me and Michelle Pfeiffer behind me. (I think this was Darrel’s year — her only year? of the mermaid film. I glanced down, following the flow of her curvaceous dress to see if she might just have flippers for feet.
To the right is Jane Fonda walking with Ted Turner! She’s waving her brains out. He’s just walking with her.
The thing is, they all look like caricatures of themselves. They look more like themselves than they actually look. It’s hard to describe. A friend pointed out that the disconnect is partially due to seeing these people in movie theaters where they appear 40 feet tall before us. To see them now, walking around me, some of them shorter than me, adds to the unreality of the whole experience.
Now I’m sort of off on a side flow going to the left. I figure the other way is for the fancy people and I’ll just slip in unnoticed going this other way.
Now I’m going up some steps. It’s like an Olympic low diving board thing with about 8 steps going up. And it’s single file. I notice that that guy with the broad shoulders in front of me is Arnold Schwarznegger! Ooops.
We get to the top and there’s a bunch of TV cameras up there and famous interviewer types all fancy themselves and all primed to ask old Arnold and the rest of us a few really important questions. Except….. who’s that Richard Gere looking guy behind him?
I feel really wrong. This line was for the creme de la creme only.
Once, when I was flying to Israel (on coach), it was early in the morning and people were just waking up. I had to go to the bathroom and figured I’d brush my teeth while I was at it. But the line was really long. I just sat and waited for it to get shorter. But it didn’t get any shorter. I knew what was happening. Now this might not seem fair, but here’s what I think was happening: a few Israelis were in the bathrooms doing their thing with absolutely no regard for anyone else.
Now people are banging on the doors. But no one’s coming out. They just don’t seem to care. Now, though, I really have to go. So I walk past them and go into the business class, heading for the bathrooms. But there is like there as well. I just keep walking. Heading towards first class.
The plane is a 747. I climb up to first class going up those circular steps. No one seems to mind. When I get up there, the shades are still drawn. It’s dark and cool and quiet. And people, here, are still sleeping. They’re all tucked-in with blankets and pillows just snoozing away. It’s like a different world up here. Below it’s bright and there are smells and remnants of breakfast everywhere. People are lined up and banging on the doors of the bathrooms. Up here it’s peaceful, calm. It’s first class.
What’s the line from the film Jerry Maguire when Renee Zellweger looks forward to first class from her seat in the coach cabin and tells her son, “First class is not just a better seat, it’s a better life.”
I use the bathroom and slink back down to my seat in economy where chaos rules.
Now I’m slinking down the steps.
I have to make my way down backwards, inching past people. “Excuse me. Excuse me.” The people on their way up all kind of get it. I’m nobody. They’re used to this. It is a chaotic situation after all and they know that I know my real place… below.
Back on terra firma, I catch sight of the people who I came with. And as I make my way toward them through the glitterati, I’m really glad that I’m dressed in my more comfortable shoes and that I’m not Richard Gere.
Fine Food, Fine Pastries explores the culture and history of Sherrill’s Restaurant and Bakery in Washington, D.C., which has served as a neighborhood gathering place since the Depression.
Focusing on the family that owns Sherrill’s, as well as the people who work and eat there, the film depicts a day in the life of this unique restaurant, illustrating how it has become a vital part of the community.
We didn’t win that day but the film did get first place in the American, National Educational, and Houston Film Festivals. And it won an Emmy too. Dave informs me that it’s in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian.