The Video Attic Exclusive: TCM: The Plot Thickens Season 2: Interview with Author of The Devil's Candy Julie Salamon and Host Ben Mankiewicz Roundtable.
To celebrate the release of the first episode of TCM's Podcast The Plot Thickens Season 2 I was invited to a roundtable discussion/interview with Author Julie Salamon and TCM's Ben Mankiewicz.
|Author Julie Salamon|
Summary of The Plot Thickens Season 2: One of the biggest novels of the 1980s, The Bonfire of the Vanities had all the makings for a hit motion picture: a dark comedy with heart and bite; an A-list director and a star-studded cast; and the most powerful movie studio in the world behind it. It then became known as a box-office disappointment, and the making of was witnessed by one woman, Julie Salamon, a journalist embedded in the production. Nobody even noticed Salamon, but she noticed everything, documented every argument, every wrong turn, every well intended decision. When the dust settled, she turned her experience into the best-selling book The Devils Candy.
What went wrong? Hosts Ben Mankiewicz and Julie Salamon venture into the closed set and revisit archival recordings of Brian De Palma, Tom Hanks, Melaine Griffith, and others, as they set about making one of the most anticipated films of all time, only to end up a fiasco for the ages.
Jeffrey KCLV-TV: Well, thank you very much, Julie. Good morning, Ben. How you doing? Good to see you again.
Ben: Good to see you, too. Thanks for thanks for being here.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. Well, Ben, my first question is to you. The first season garnered more than a million downloads. Are you just pleased with how the series began?
Ben: Yeah, of course, very pleased. First of all, it was rewarding to help construct. I'd wanted to do a podcast for some time, and I've been nagging them, and even suggested Peter. But my idea was entirely different. I suggested Peter for things on the channel, not for the podcast. So, I've been talking about how I thought we should use Peter more. And I wanted to do a podcast. But my idea for using Peter more wasn't as good as this. And my podcast idea was just dumb. I loved working with Angela, and Joanne and Susan and the entire team. And it was really satisfying. And it was really interesting to be able to talk to somebody like that, five, six sessions, two hours each with Peter. I thought that was rewarding, too. And I like Peter, very much. So, I like telling that story. And obviously, we're definitely pleased with the reaction. It set a high bar.
Jeffrey: Excellent. Thank you.
John: The Hollywood Soapbox: I thank you for the time today. Julie, I was just was wondering if you could kind of relay the news of how you actually got so embedded in the in the production of this movie. It would seem like it's an opportunity that filmmakers and production companies are not going to allow anymore, that close attention.
Julie Salamon: So, my luck was Brian De Palma, I think we had become friendly. Through I was working as a film critic, back then we'd met from time to time when he was in New York to talk about movies. And I had told him that I was interested in doing this kind of a book, similar to what Lillian Ross had done with Picture many years before in the 50s, following John Houston around. When he signed on to do Bonfire, he thought that might be a good movie to do it on. And you know, he was a little bit of a bomb thrower. He kind of liked to ruffle feathers in Hollywood, and I guess he thought I would be the person to do it. Obviously, I think he might have thought differently about it if he'd known how the movie was gonna end up. But without him, it wouldn't have happened.
Ben: The part of your question about whether it will discourage others, Julie's unbelievable access. She didn't just have access, it's what she did with the access. Other people have had access, and then bungled it or created something ordinary. So, part of the reason that we talked about this movie is because of what Julie did with it. I'm not just trying to- she already likes me. I think so. But I think that's really, critically important. And I think if the lesson that Hollywood directors and producers take away from the Devil’s Candy is that, oh, we can't grant access like that, then they're missing the point. Then this would just be a blockbuster movie that disappointed. Now, there's an interesting story around it. And as long as you have assurances that during production, the little things that might get clicks on Twitter won't be used, that this is for a book, for something substantive afterwards. I think the lesson ought to be that that ought to happen more. You know, I hope so. I had a family event, my niece graduated from high school, and my cousin who is not an insignificant producer at a very significant studio now. She runs the studio in fact. And, she said to me that she gives every single person in the business who she meets The Devil's Candy. She said, no lie, she’s probably given 100 copies or bought 100 copies and given it to people. And I was like, “Okay, you're exaggerating.” She was like, “Alright, if I'm exaggerating, I've given 85 but it might be 110.” She said, “That's the book I give people if they want to work in this business.” And again, as I say, she has succeeded enormously in this business.
Julie: Thank you for saying that. Obviously, there are gossipy elements to it. But for me, it was just that I love seeing how things work and the organism, and making a movie is just such a huge, complicated enterprise and to have access to all of it... And the truth is, I was interested in, you know, the sound guy that used coconut to make the sound of courses hosts going as the movie stars. It was just riveting to me.
Mike: The Video Attic: My questions is for Julie. If you were to cast Bonfires, who would be the lead?
Julie: Well, probably at the time, my choice would have been somebody like William Hurt. He's just sort of what you think about. I don't think Tom Hanks was ultimately a bad choice. It’s just people brought so much baggage to it. I think William Hurt was sort of what you would classically think of as somebody in that position. But the truth is, if you go on and trading of bond traders, there are more people who look like Tom Hanks and William Hurt.
Ben: But the ones who have succeeded to the point that Sherman had looked more like William Hurt, don't they? That was sort of the idea to me that maybe Hanks was a little young for that part.
Julie: Well, yes and no, because it's a young man's business. It's like the movie business, people burn out. But I think you're right, Ben, in that I think part of this is what your imagination of that kind of person was, and Bill Hurt definitely was that person. And Peter Fallow probably was definitely not gonna be Bruce Willis in anybody's imagination. I think when they decided to go with an American, somebody like Jack Nicholson, or who had that kind of waggish but sneaky intelligence, I think would have been a lot more interesting. And I actually thought Melanie did a great job actually is Maria. I think you could buy her as the devil's candy.
Cammy: The Classic Couple: Thank you. This is for Julie. In the 2002 edition of your book, you have your afterward, in which you recap the 10 years after lunch with Brian De Palma. And you quote him as saying, “Maybe 20 or 30 years later, I'll be able to look upon it like an old photograph, but not yet.” Now it's that 30-year mark, right? My understanding is Brian is aware of this project but doesn't really want to revisit the film. So, if you will indulge me, I have two questions. So, from what you know of Brian De Palma, do you think the Bonfire of the Vanities will ever become that old photograph they will reminisce about? And then sort of two parts, what is your vantage point now reflecting on this work at 30 years? Thanks.
Julie: Honestly, I think it will never be easy for him to look back at this movie. And unfortunately, I think the reason is because of The Devil's Candy. I think that had it just been another movie that didn't work... Brian's whole career has been up and down. And he'd be the first person to say that, but this one became a particular down because of my book. And believe me, for me, that's been an agony, because I really respect him and like him so much. And yet this thing that I'm also very proud of, which is my book, is the thing that’s like this perpetual thorn in his side. Having said that, when I told him about the podcast, he was excited about it. He loved the first season of The Plot Thickens. And I just think it's hard for him. So, I don't know, maybe 50 years when he's very old, but not yet. So, reflecting those 30 years is incredibly strange for me. That baby that I had right at the beginning luckily was not scarred by my negligent mother. I really wasn't negligent. But it was an interesting first year. That baby is now 31 and about to get married. So that's sort of a different vantage point for me. But, looking back at the film, and what happened while it was being made, I think if anybody's worked in any kind of an organization, nothing there should surprise anyone about the kinds of conversations people have, the way people make decisions. The ups and downs of the intensity of that project and looking back on it, I think I feel more compassion for everybody, including myself, about how crazy the whole thing was. The co-producer on this project, hates the word, “poignant,” but there is a kind of poignancy to it and certainly nostalgia for me to hear all that you noted, to see Tom Hanks as a 33- or 34-year-old then, Melanie Griffith as a young woman going through these kinds of struggles professionally, privately. There's something really incredible to me about it and to hear their voices on those tapes, which I had no idea I even had, it's just been a remarkable experience to look back on it. But I feel good about it, to be honest, and that's a nice feeling, because sometimes you don't.
Cammy: Thank you so much Julie.
Jim: Real Talker: Hey, Ben, I got a question for you. Why was it this story that you ultimately decided on to tell for this season? What went into it? What was sort of the process? Because I wasn't even aware of the movie. I'm in my early 30s and I just didn't know about it until I started researching about it. So, there's a whole generation of us, especially on the younger side, that doesn't even know about this movie with these major stars that kind of went to hidden for us, maybe. But what was it about this story as opposed to probably so many other choices? What made this the definitive choice to tell this story and come together with Julie on this? Was there another choice that was close up to do or was this something you just wanted to do from the start? I just wanted to hear kind of on the process of selecting this for season two.
Ben: There were no other choices. There were no other stories to tell.
(Julie and Ben laugh)
Ben: In Hollywood, we were out of stories to tell. No, you answered the question in asking it. We didn't think let's find a giant box office failure. It was this opportunity that developed with our partnership with Julian with Campside Media with Natalia. It was an opportunity to tell a story. Our genius is just recognizing an opportunity. Julie wanted to tell this story. At the same time, she had these tapes from her interviews, these recordings of her for interviews for the for the book, and then we were smart enough to recognize, “Hey, wait a minute. This is probably something that we shouldn't pass up.” I'm grateful for their interest in partnering with us. For us, it was pretty easy decision. The idea of The Plot Thickens is that we're going to tell compelling Hollywood stories. Anybody who's a storyteller wants to tell compelling stories. We think we did that. We found that with Peter, that we thought that sort of career arc, which is marked by some failure, which is this really talented filmmaker, one of the seminal filmmakers of the era, along with Brian. And then, you know, he's got failure, and he has some arrogance, and he has tragedy, and he has his own interesting brand of humility about it now, too, and that's what I thought made it a compelling story. The story about a failure, but it's not about failures. It's about a really interesting artistic failure. In some degrees, its failure, of course. It's a success in other degrees in that it’s people's jobs, and they created a piece of art, and here we are 30 years later talking about it. I love the idea of failure. I'm trying not to use that word as pejoratively as it as it sounds. Because what makes Carrie interesting? What makes The Untouchables interesting? What makes Casualties of War interesting? What makes Blow Out interesting? What makes Dressed to Kill interesting? Even more interesting is that there's Bonfire, and there are others like that. And that makes it a compelling story. And the fact that again, my enormously talented cousin, that she recognized that you want to learn about Hollywood, certainly vaguely modern Hollywood, we may have entered another era now. But post-studio Hollywood, and how things are done. You can learn it in Bonfire, you can learn in The Devil's Candy about Bonfire. It's the book to read. It is the best Hollywood book I've ever read. And I've read now a lot of them. So, the opportunity to tell that story with the creator of that story. That seemed like it was a no-brainer. It's not what we set out to do. But then the opportunity presented itself, and we seized it.
Julie: And also, just to follow up on what Ben said, Jim, I think part of it is I think people always think there's some grand plan to things, even with movies. I was a movie critic, and I can't tell you how many times, probably I did it as well, movie critics will say, “Oh, the director did such and such because of fill in the blank.” And then when you're actually watching how or why things happen, it's usually just this whole series of circumstances that fall into place a certain way. So, with this, did Ben and TCM think about doing The Devil's Candy as season two? I didn't even think of doing The Devil's Candy as season anything. I was sitting here minding my own business in the middle of a pandemic. And I get this email through my website from Campside Media saying, “Have you ever thought of doing The Devil's Candy as a podcast series?” I said, “No, but sure. Why not?” And that was really how it started. After I got that note, and they were interested, I literally went with my son to Manhattan Mini Storage, climbed up this dangerous little ladder, lifted a lot of heavy boxes out, found this box, and I had no idea I had saved those tapes. I have endless folders of typed transcripts of not only the tapes, but of my notes, because I was so paranoid that I wouldn't let anybody else type them. There's boxes of those things. Everything just kind of fell into place. Then Campsite approached TCM, and they were interested. It was just this series of lucky events. That really turned out to be amazing for me. I've never done anything like this, and it's been so much fun.
Jim: Oh, unbelievable. Thank you, guys.
Judy: Hollywood Times: Ben, how do you feel about doing the podcast as opposed to being on camera?
Ben: Well, I mean, I love it. I don't want to pretend I like being on television. How you guys doing?
Ben: I would say like this as well or better. It's just different. This is real storytelling and enables more of my personality to come out. So, I like it. I'm a people person. I like collaborating. I am at my best when I collaborate. I think a lot of us are, but I'm certain of that about myself. It’s rarely frustrating for me. Somebody rarely tells me to do something differently and I don't bristle when it's creative, the way I might fly or my wife tells me to do something or my eight-year-old has figured out that she is capable of doing that now. I like this manner of storytelling. I'm really grateful for it. I love radio. I liked when I had a political show that I did for a while called The Young Turks that I started. The guy that I started it with, Cenk Uygur, who's done very well for himself and is a good friend of mine, after about three or four years of doing the show, he was like, we're gonna put cameras and we're gonna put up all these videos on YouTube. And I was like, “That's a terrible idea. No one will watch videos of people just talking.” I liked it when it was a radio show. So, I don't get how this business works, but I am grateful that podcasting has emerged and that its sort of saluting old radio. I like this form of storytelling. I'm just much more relaxed. It's different. You're not putting makeup on. You're not putting a tie on. It's the moment you start talking into a camera when you're not really talking to anyone. This is different. We're all having a conversation. There are modern aspects to it. And obviously we're all in our homes and it is a camera, but we're having a conversation. Right now, I'm droning on, but technically this conversation. As soon as you the lights go on in a studio and there's a camera and you start talking to no one, it is instantly artificial. Then your job is to work backwards as hard as you can to minimize the artificiality of it and to bring some authenticity to it. But this to me from start to finish feels authentic, this manner of storytelling. So, I love both and I've certainly not given up the other one. But I'm thrilled that we were able to add this.
Jeffrey: KCLV-TV: Ben, TCM is also hosting a night dedicated to Brian De Palma. Could you tell us a little bit about that and will Julie be making appearances throughout the night talking about the podcast?
Ben: She came, but we wouldn't let her in the studio. She was like, “Let me in!” Banging on the door… No, of course we're doing it with Julie. It’s me and Julie hosting a night of Brian De Palma movies. We're starting with Bonfire, which is making its TCM premiere. I think this is the day after the Fourth of July. I think this is on July 5 that you can check this out. So, we start with Bonfire and then Obsession, Sisters. I think those are the only three Julie and I do together. But then we also have Blow Out and Body Double. So, we see the movies, but mostly it's Julie talking about Brian, talking about what kind of director he is, sharing the stories. Some of which are in The Devil's Candy, some of which aren't. What's not in The Devil's Candy, of course, is what has become her now 30-plus year friendship with Brian De Palma. It’s Obsession and Sisters, Bonfires, a TCM premiere, I think we've shown both Obsession and Sisters, but they don't show up regularly on TCM, so they're going to be new to a lot of people. They're both weird, and they're wonderful De Palma-ness. I think they're unquestionably worth seeing. They're really good. I mean, they're weird, but they're very good films.
Jeffrey: Thank you.
Aurora: I'm wondering if the other players like Bruce and Tom and Melanie know about this and how they feel about the podcast, or the idea of it if they haven't listened to it?
Julie: I don't know. I mean, I know that TCM reached out to different people…
Julie: … to see if they wanted to participate. And none of them were interested. None of the above-the-line people wanted to participate, but a lot of the other people did. Not to give anything away, but I did do fresh interviews with a lot of people. The first assistant director, the producer, the line producer, a lot of the people who worked on the film. What's fascinating to me is their memory of being on that film is not, “Oh my God, I worked on that disaster,” but, “Oh my God, how much I learned being on that film and how amazing it was to work with Brian. How incredible it was to be on this huge thing that we all shot on the streets of New York.” Most of them have this remarkably positive feeling about the experience and sadness that it didn't work out. So that's interesting.
Ben: Yeah, let me add without spoilers that many people involved in the movie participated. We reach out as we always do. Tom Hanks is a very busy person. He's a professional actor of some success. We reached out to all these people, and I don't even know what the exact reactions were, but there was no negativity at all. Most people in general in the middle hit into talent booking. Almost everyone says no. It was all very polite and encouragement. There was no issue. If anyone read Julie's book and they were angry about it, I don't think they read it. I don't think there's a hostile moment in that book, or an aggressive moment. So, this is an interesting story to tell. Still talking about this movie, I guess maybe that's part of the reason some people are like, “I don't want to talk about this movie,” but it hasn't come close to defining the career of anyone involved.
Cammy The Classic Couple: Thank you. And Julie and Ben, if I can maybe get both of your perspectives on this. But, Julie, I feel like I'm quoting you back to you. But I want to get this right. So, you describe The Devil's Candy as, and I'm quoting, “that impossible, expensive, possibly monumental thing” And you question that Hollywood, this is back in 1990, of course, that Hollywood would not learn its lesson to scale back.
Cammy: In 1990, you were talking about scaling back. And so, I was just wondering if I could get your perspective. And then Ben, perhaps your perspective, here we are 30 years later. Do you think that Hollywood still feeds on that Devil's Candy?
Julie: Yeah, I do. I think our whole society does to a certain extent. But what's different now in a very positive way are all these other outlets. I think there's so many opportunities, on television, in low budget movies, on your iPhone, tip for people to do all kinds of small projects. I think what's said to me in a way is that it's harder and harder to get the big budget, old fashioned Hollywood movie. I think you just don't see that much anymore unless it's a Marvel. Nothing against a Marvel superhero movie. Love that. But the kind of movie that Bonfire of the Vanities was aspiring to be, you know, something that's maybe for grownups. And that to me is sad. The budgets have definitely not come under control, even though one would think maybe they could be with all this technology at your fingertips. So many things could be so much easier, but that just doesn't seem to happen. That has to do with salaries and all different kinds of things. I don't know. What do you think, Ben?
Ben: Yeah. Bonfire was such a big budget film. What, it ended up at, Julie, I think $50 million?
Julie: It doesn't even seem like that much.
Ben: And it was 30 years ago, but still you could even have topped that then. Julie and I talked about this when she was in Atlanta to shoot the night of De Palma movies, what's gone is the middle range movie, right? We know Marvel movies and Warner Brothers is gonna have the DC movies, but what television has done with what these wonderful shows is it's almost like they've filled the void of the grown-up adult drama. That is wonderful because there's so many of them. I mean, Game of Thrones, those were each 53-minute movies each week. Those are Sopranos. Those didn't feel like episodic television. Now they're all these great shows. But what is missing is, producer friends say you know 10,000,015 up to 25- $30 million movies, big budget, that's a real budget, but they're not 150,000,200 million 100 million. So, where was the movie released? Gosh, I guess it was on HBO Max. So, I guess it's Warner Brothers. I should probably know since, you know, it's our company, and if it's not, I'm sorry. Those Who Wish Me Dead. That was the Angelina Jolie movie, and she jumps out of airplanes to fight fires. And Jon Bernthal is in that movie, and Aiden Gillen, you know from The Wire and Game of Thrones. I liked that movie. It wasn't really my kind of movie, and some of it was unrealistic or whatever, but I felt like, “Oh, man, this is the kind of movie that came out in the 90s.” And that's great. I'm totally fine with that. I think about The Judge with Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. I know that was some time ago, but I can't believe it got even made when it did, because that kind of movie is from a totally different era. And now if that happened, it would be a limited series, right? You know, it would be Mare of Eastown, which was phenomenal. Right, but wasn't a movie. So, that's too bad that that we look at a million-dollar movie, these little independent movies for $1 million or two that people cobble together, which could turn out to be great. It's not the budget for the stuff in the middle. That's for grownups. We're obviously catering to a young adult and teenage audience with the big mainstream movies. Certainly, that’s the movies that catch your eye that have the billboards that get the press attention. That's regrettable, but it's not like there's not really good storytelling available to see on a screen.
Cammy: Thank you both. Appreciate it.
John: The Hollywood Soapbox: I thank you for the follow up. Tom Wolfe's book is certainly seen as a modern classic and the movie less so. I know that there's a lot of personalities that you documented, and that'll come through in the podcast as well. But do you also believe that there was sort of an original sin, that you had a book that maybe wasn't perfectly adaptable for a film and that the challenge wasn’t going to be met by any director and any cast?
Julie: Yeah, absolutely. Tom Wolfe said it right from the get go. He always described his books as this series of slices of life. Interestingly enough, I'm sure that if somebody had been wanting to adapt it today, they would have done it as a limited series for television, which it is probably more suited to because then you could really delve into all those individual characters. What's interesting about Bonfire of the Vanities, the book now, I was actually on some kind of panel a few weeks ago, a podcast, where they were talking about the The Bonfire of the Vanities. That book itself has become a hot potato in a different way now, because of all the racial stuff then, that today would be much harder to adapt for all kinds of sensitivities. Even though I think Tom Wolfe was doing satire, I think it would be extremely difficult to adapt today for probably the same reasons that it was typical to adapt 30 years ago, but with a 2021 variation on it. So yeah, I think the book itself was really tough. On the other hand, I think it would make a terrific miniseries with all these great character actors playing those roles.
Mike: The Video Attic: A question for Julie. I was just curious when the last time you saw Bonfire of the Vanities and is it kind of strange watching it, just being so close to the production?
Julie: Well, I saw it again just a couple months ago, when we started working on this. I definitely watched it a few times. Yeah, it's always been strange for me to watch because for me, it is like that photo album of my experience on the set. So, I kind of think, “Oh, yeah, that's right before I interviewed so and so.” But having said that, I've always felt that the movie in its own crazy way, it's a lot of fun. If you take it kind of scene by scene, it's just mind boggling. The thing about Brian De Palma is that he never makes a boring movie. You always know you're going to see something. So, the question that you guys asked before about what do you miss seeing in the movies, the big budget, it's not even so much a question of big movies, but just something that visually kind of knocks your socks off because it's just so interesting, and somebody is really having fun, concocting ideas of how to create this scene. In an interesting way, Brian De Palma and Tom Wolfe are not so different from one another because Tom Wolfe, if you read his books, these crazy sentences and made up words. It's wild. Brian is the same way. He just wants everything to be interesting. So, for me watching the movie, I could never watch it as a film critic, actually. First of all, I've seen it way too many times and have too many other feelings about it. But to me, I just think it's really interesting. I think that it'll be something for people to see when it shows on TCM, people will be able to experience it. I think it will be a surprise for a lot of people, like why was this considered such a big disaster? I can name five other movies that came out that year that were 10 times worse.
Mike: I exactly agree. It is such an interesting film. Thank you.
Jim: Real Talker: This is kind of a question for both of you. Especially with the podcast The Plot Thickens, in this industry, there's a lot of sometimes pandering, and it's tough to sometimes share your honest opinion. I feel being in your positions, both of you, you to Julie as a critic. How do you navigate the relationships that you make? Because you often you know it's easy to say nice things about a project or an actor, but there's failures, too. How do you navigate the personal relationships you have with these directors and actors in a sense, and offer the fair criticism that is, if it's a bad project, bad performance, but yet not offend them? And I'm sure Ben, you can speak about it with what you had with Peter. How do you approach it? And how receptive are they usually, to criticism or not? Because we know it's tough. Sometimes they bring someone in pockets, you want to see a lot of positive things. You don't want to make it negative in a sense and offend someone, but what's the navigation that you guys have learned over the years with some of these very prominent figures that don't have to do interviews or don't have to talk to certain people? How do you maintain the professional aspect, and then the personal relationship and friendship and keep it fair all the way around, but not be afraid to offer critique or bring up some uncomfortable moments?
Julie: Well, I think Ben and I come at this from different positions, because he has actually talked to people over and over again at some point and lives in LA. I live in New York. The truth is, while I was a critic, the only person I really became friends with was Brian. I actually stopped reviewing his movies after Bonfire of the Vanities, not out of malice, but because I felt I couldn't be objective about them. As a film critic at a paper like the Wall Street Journal, you're discouraged from actually becoming close to anybody. I wrote profiles of a lot of people, Steven Spielberg, major characters in Hollywood and major film executives. I wrote some pretty tough stories. I couldn't really be friends with those people, not because I didn't like them, but because it would cloud your judgment. My friendship with Brian is a rare thing. It's happened to me once. And, even with the book, there were many times when I was writing the book that that I just had to zone out my personal feelings to tell the truth. But I also tried not to be mean, and I'm sure there are people who say, well, you were mean, because I described something that they might not like, but I tried not to be gratuitously snide or something like that. But, after a few years after I wrote this book, I stopped being the critic for exactly the reason you're talking about, not even exactly that reason. It was really more like having written a book myself, and I've subsequently written many books. I've experienced what it's like to work so hard on something to do such a good job, or you think you have, and a lot of people respond positively, but there's always people who don't. I’m sure when our podcasts come out, there will be people who don't have a good reaction to it. And part of what I tell myself is well just take it like a woman because you used to do the same thing. But it does complicate relationships. And I wonder what it's like for Ben because he lives right there.
Ben: So, I was a critic for a while, and I didn't even like the term. And I wasn't very good at it to be honest. I did the Siskel and Ebert show for a year, and very publicly lost that job, which was humbling and embarrassing for all the reasons that you would think it would be embarrassing. To sort of fail publicly. So, it's one reason why I'm interested in failure. I failed publicly. Some of my best friends are critics. Those guys are great. I learned something every time I listened to one of their reviews, every time I sat down. But it was hard for me to criticize somebody else's art that I watched for two hours, and then thought about for 13 minutes before going into review sometimes. I would tell people officially that I know I was very sober and I wrote and thought it out. But sometimes, whenever you get busy, you're doing three or four movies in a day and to be flippant about something that people worked really hard on just didn't sit well with me. Personally, I wasn't good at it. There were very few directors who I felt… I was like, Michael Bay, he doesn't care. He's a billionaire. He knows his movies are super loud, right? (chuckles)
Ben: and he's fine. But short of that, it was hard for me. Then with TCM with wanting to get these people to come in and talk about some of their work on the air or getting them to come in and talk about other people's work. Maybe you`d have George Lucas come in and talk about how he was influenced by Western, I don't want to criticize George Lucas, and I don't know if that makes me weak, but I'll say this. I went to Columbia Journalism School. I was a journalist for the first basically 10 years of my career. We had a guy some of you may know, because he works for NPR. I still think he does. He was at the time the Supreme Court reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He covered the Supreme Court for like 58 years, Lyle Denniston. He came in and talked to us, like in the first month at Columbia. He said, “Look, man, I cover the Supreme Court. So, I know these Justices to call them when I need to, and to call their clerks when I need to, and sometimes they give me important information. I went to one thing some Sunday when people were playing tennis, and they schmoozed and they drank…” This was in 1965, he's talking to us in 1992 and I'm telling his story slightly incorrectly, but the gist of it was, he was like, “I totally see the problem. I can never do this again. I can't be friends with these people. I can't go play tennis.” And I think that's true. And Julie expressed exactly why it's true. Why she stopped reviewing Brian movies, right? She likes him too much. I like artists, man. I like talking to them. I like talking to them about their business. And I think they're interesting. I like living out here. I think there's so many smart, creative people here. I love defending LA, but I'm not going to turn around and talk about why you shouldn't go see the thing that they spent sometimes like six and a half years making in some capacity because I'm like, “Oh, yeah, that sucked. Script was stupid.” Like, I don't know, man. I know. I'm know I'm making fun of critics. And I don't mean to because there's huge value in it. The first time somebody sketched out a drawing on the wall of a cave, right? He was like, look at what I've created, right? And then a couple of people walked by, and then again, look, there's criticism. So, art criticism is valid, it's vital, it's necessary. I'm not good at it. And I'm gonna leave it to other people. Thank you for the transparency. Really appreciate it from both of you.
Jim: Thank you for the transparency. I appreciate it from both of you.
Jeffrey KCLV-TV: First of all, I just want to say how much I loved you and your brother, Josh, when you were doing all the courtroom stuff, I never missed it. That was just one of the best series.
Ben: Oh, thanks. That'd be great to do that every couple years. Thanks, I’ll tell him.
Jeffrey: And don't feel too rejected by Siskel and Ebert. Because I have my letter from the producer’s rejection when I wanted to be a guest critic, I wrote to them. So, this is my 26th year as a film critic, and I had those problems, too, and not so much about trashing a film. But personal questions. I don't ask personal questions like a lot of entertainment reporters do. So, that's always difficult when publicists are saying, “Don't ask about the relationship.” Of course not. So, I know, that it's a little bit off in the distance, but can you give us a little tease about the Lucy podcast? Because I'm a huge Lucy fan. Are you going to concentrate on her movie career? Or just give us a little preview, because that's exciting, too.
Ben: Yeah. We're working on these things simultaneously. I mean, I think it's gonna be great. I just put my voice down for episode one last night. We don't do them in order. We'll start at the beginning. Like man, every episode is mapped, the entire series is mapped out, every episode is mapped out very carefully. Different writers, different producers are assigned to different episodes to get them done at different times. It's a dance. And so that part has blown me away a little bit. I mean, this is a collaborative, artistic endeavor. Every single podcast you like, you have given too much credit to the host. Not enough credit to the producer, and not nearly enough credit to the person really responsible for your liking it, the audio engineer, the sound engineer.
Ben: What these guys can do, to tell stories. It's amazing. And I should have known. Obviously, I worked with editors. I gotta tell you, it's not on my resume. I don't talk about it much. I was there almost nine months, including six months on the air, at the beginning of TMZ, that TV show. TCM let me do it. None of us really knew what it was. I didn't know TMZ the website. I did it for a friend, former managing editor of mine. She was like, “Nah, this is gonna be like The Daily Show, but about entertainment.” Good. She was wrong. Anyway, she got fired, which is a great badge of honor for her before I started. And I didn't like that time of my life. Although I came away impressed both with Harvey Levin, who was involved in every aspect of the show. That was impressive to me. And these were good, mostly good people. But we'd have like 22 seconds of material of somebody coming out of a garage, who I'd never heard of, talking about a show I'd never seen. And then I have to do two minutes on this or a minute 40, and those audio editors, man, they are editors. The way they would play with audio, they would turn these, because that shows engaging, right? And it was really engaging from the start. It wasn't about anything that I care about, and I quit, which was the greatest thing. They let me walkout on my contract. So, God bless them, I'm not knocking them. But what those editors could do was amazing. They would turn nothing into something. And we never give enough credit to it in movies and certainly in podcast because of course there's nothing, there's no visual component to it. So, they really make things sing. Sometimes I'll be going through a script and I'll be like, “Well, this can't work,” and our sort of the director or executive producer the podcast, Angela Carone, is like, “It's going to be fine. Wait ‘til Michael Voulgaris gets a hold of it. Wait ‘til he edits this. Wait ‘til he puts it together.” And inevitably you're like, “Oh, wow! That's impressive.” So, they're the stars. And I'm not just trying to be a guy who sort of calls out somebody below the line. They shouldn't be below the line. They really are in many and nearly every way, other than the subject, the most important person, the most important artists involved in podcasts.
Mike The Video Attic: Thanks, this questions for both Julie and Ben. What's your personal favorite Brian De Palma film?
Julie: Oh, I have three favorites. (Laughs) Let me divide them by category. My favorite crowd pleaser is, I mean, The Untouchables is just fun. And I love the dying scene of Sean Connery. It's just amazing. But I love Blow Out. Of his thrillers, it's by far my favorite, and I love all of them. But that one, I just, I think it's an incredible movie. And I appreciate it. Actually, that was something I appreciated even more after I did The Devil’s Candy, because when I got to see the sound guy operating, it really elevated that work of the sound engineer. So, I thought that was amazing. And also, to see John Travolta in that role, it was incredible. It’s hard to say as favorite movie, but I thought his most powerfully emotional movie was Casualties of War. I mean, it's just an incredible war epic. And it's a movie that is so hard to watch because it's so painful, but for something that is such a painful movie it is stunningly beautiful. And, really good. But there's a lot of other ones I like. I'm a fan. I love his movies. I think they're great. But those three I think are really, really… Oh my God, and Scarface I love because I started watching it with my son who's eight. When he was eight, which is completely inappropriate, Brian actually gave him a poster signed, and we have some Scarface paraphernalia around our house. It's embarrassing.
Ben: I love Blow Out, always have sauna theater. I remember seeing it in a theater and thinking that was cool. Those were cool people. And it didn't seem like other movies. It felt very European. That sounded arrogant, but I meant that in a cool way. I love The Untouchables. Look, I'm a Costner fan. I'm a Connery fan. They were so good. They were perfect. So, The Untouchables is great. And then I agree 100% on Casualties of War; great, great film. And it was a personal film for Brian, emotional film for America in part, but it's part of the story of Bonfire, right? Coming out of Casualties of War. If Casualties of War had gone differently, he might not have made Bonfire. That fair to say, Julie?
Julie: Yeah, very fair.
Ben: And, I probably I may have only seen it start to finish twice. I saw it when it came out when I was definitely too young for it. But it was great. And then saw it again and still liked it. I don't know whether it would hold up. It probably wouldn't. I know there would be some problematic aspects to it, but I love Dressed to Kill. This is the sign of a great director: there's three scenes in Dressed to Kill that I just know. I see them. I can imagine them in my head. And that's Brian, right? That's Brian creating those shots. And I'm biased because it's like a crazy crush on Angie, who's Angie Dickinson.
Ben: It was a crush before I knew, now it's legit. It's impossible not to love Angie Dickinson. It can't be done. And I think she's a super underappreciated actress. So, I would have a group of four that would include those three and Dressed to Kill. But as you said, anytime you make one of these lists, I don't mean to diss Scarface. I like Scarface. I like Carlito’s Way. Carrie, for crying out loud, right? And then once we have on TCM Sisters, Obsession, these are fun movies. He’s a defining filmmaker of the modern era of American films. American moviemaking?
Mike: Okay. Great. Thank you.
Cammy The Classic Couple: Thanks so much. So just circling us right on back to Bonfire. Julie, I wanted to ask you of course, you had unprecedented access as an author and an observer. And if you can think back, what do you think was the most surprising thing you discovered about Hollywood filmmaking in this process?
Julie: I think the most surprising thing was the, I'm gonna use the word chaos, but not in terms of being a mess, but it's almost deliberate chaos. There's so many things, especially for a movie like that, that's so big. There's just so many different things. It's like a corporation in a way, or Spielberg or people used to talk about the factory of the studio. But this is different, because this is sort of like a conglomeration of all these things going on simultaneously. And just thinking about what the director has to hold in his or her head, while they're making this film. I mean, it's hard. It was hard enough for me to write. It's hard enough to write a book, to keep all the different pieces in the here. It's all these people and places and the three dimensionality of it. The organizational part was something I just never thought of. You're moving tons of people and equipment and stuff. There's construction. There's all these different aspects to it. And yeah, I guess at some level, I must have known that. But to actually be there, I think that was just a constant astonishment. So, the fact that any movie ever gets made is a miracle and the fact that some of them are actually good is even more of a call.
Ben: Totally. But let me just say quickly to anybody, you guys out there, and anybody who loves movies on the off chance that at least one of you hasn't read The Devil's Candy: You'll love it. It's just so good. Because no matter how much you think you know about moviemaking, it will change how you think about it, right? It changed Julie, she watched it. She was like, “Oh my God, I had no idea they did this.” She was a film critic for the frickin Wall Street Journal. Right? And she didn't know. Right? You can't know. That's the beauty. That's why The Devil's Candy. The book is so valuable, because it just teaches you so much about this business. Of course, it's a catastrophe, in a sense, because it's this $50 million of business money, of corporate money, invested in a bunch of lunatic artists like Brian De Palma. Their potential for conflict is enormous. Which is why we're doing the podcast, which is why she wrote the book, right? It's these forces coming together, they're oil and water in many ways. They don't belong together. But, when it works, it's amazing, right? When it doesn't work, you can learn from it. There are parts of it that are still amazing. I like seeing movies that don't work. Sometimes it's funny. It's interesting. Anyway, if it's been more than 10 years since you've read the book, just read it, just read it, you'll love it. And it'll help you re-fall in love with movies.
Julie: Okay, I'll put in a plug, because of the podcast. That book came out before there were audio books. I got commissioned to do an audio version. Ben talked about hard work and the necessity of sound engineers. I did the audio version of The Devil's Candy, which has just come out. It's incredible. It was such an incredible experience. I'm sitting there during COVID in the booth, and there's the sound engineer outside, and then the director up on the zoom screen, and even in that modest, little scale, how difficult that is. The idea is to keep people awake as you're reading. And so, a lot of work to do.
Ben: It is really hard to record more than about 30 minutes at a time and not be in your head thinking that this is horrible. I spent two hours recording the first Lucy episode last night, and by the end, I was like, “Next time on The Plot Thickens. No, that's horrible.” Over and over. “I can't speak. I don't know… How do people say this? How do people do it?” I haven't done a whole audio book. Your brain stops functioning in a way that it would normally, and then you do it 12 times, and then the engineer will get it. He'll be like, “Yeah, they all sound exactly the same.” It's fine, but in your head, it's a catastrophe.
A big thank you to Julie Salamon and Ben Markiewicz for donating their time for this interview!