You might wonder how powerful people get away with doing disgusting things, particularly things like sexually harassing less powerful people. Why don’t more people who know about their actions blow the whistle on them?
There’s an easy answer. Nobody wants to get involved. It’s an ugly, murky business, often characterized by only he said/she said evidence. And powerful people are powerful for a reason. They control who gets to work, earns a living, and has a career.
Shortly before the end of the last century I directed a couple of episodic TV shows on the west coast. Like most episodic shows, the budget was squeaky tight and the shooting schedule meant that the director’s shot list had to be scraped to the bone. Bringing the show in on time and on budget was the usual struggle against time and circumstances. This particular series helped the directors out by providing a second unit camera crew to pick up shots the director simply didn’t have time to set up. In this case the second unit camera was operated by a very attractive young woman. She was doing great work, and I was grateful for it.
“You’re saving my life here,” I told her. “I don’t know how I could get this show in the can without you.”
And then she was fired.
I heard that the producer said she was incompetent. That didn’t make any sense to me, but maybe there was something she shot that the producer didn’t like, or decided was a waste of money. Producers can be hard to please.
I heard from the camera crew that the producer had hit on her. She had turned him down flat. And then she was fired. That would explain a lot.
Some weeks later I got a phone call from the producer. She had gone to the union and lodged a complaint against him. “She’s saying that the great Zale Dalen told her that her work was saving his life,” he told me, his voice an audible sneer when he said my name.
The implication, of course, was that he wanted me to deny telling her that her work was valuable. A lot of emotions were running through my body and tightening my breathing at this point. Chief among them was that I didn’t like this guy. Possibly there was a bit of pride in his sarcastic suggestion that my name carried weight in the industry. Also there was a slight annoyance at the woman for dragging me into this situation. By this point in my career I had learn that pissing off a producer, even a low level West Coast episodic producer, could be career suicide.
Case in point: I went to an interview with a PBS producer in Seattle. He told me: “I hear you are hard to work with.” and I knew exactly where that had come from – a producer I worked with in Toronto, almost on the other side of the continent. The movie industry is a small club. Producer talk, and don’t mind exercising their power and influence by killing a job prospect for a director.
I remember sitting in a sushi bar with George Lazenby. He told me that Albert R. (Cubby) Broccoli wanted him to do another James Bond movie after starring in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and he had refused because “the producer made me feel mindless”. Cubby Broccoli told him he would never make another movie, and pretty much made it stick. “After the Bond argument nobody would touch me,” George told me. “Harry Saltzman had always said, ‘If you don’t do another Bond you’ll wind up doing spaghetti westerns in Italy. But I couldn’t even get one of those. My agent couldn’t believe it. But the word was out – I was ‘difficult’.”
Being difficult is the kiss of death for a director, unless you direct a huge money maker. Then being difficult is not only expected, it’s essential. A director is expected to have a vision and fight for it. But even so, one must be aware of power and influence. Phil Borsos had a good run after making “The Grey Fox”, but his career did a steep dive into the toilet after he pissed off the producer of “The Mean Season”, David Foster, a man with a list of major credits as long as your leg and an entrenched member of the Hollywood industry elite.
So, what could I do? I certainly wasn’t going to deny that I said what I said. I told the producer, listen, this isn’t my business. I don’t know what went on and I wasn’t there. But what I saw of her work looked good. If anybody asks me, I’ll say so.
I later heard that the young camera person settled, i.e. was bought off. And, predictably, she became known as “difficult”. Though I managed to hire her for one small project, I don’t think she got a lot of work after that. Another reason why I don’t like the film business. It’s full of assholes who trash careers out of spite.
Strangely enough, I also didn’t get any work from that producer after that.
It’s really encouraging that the “casting couch” has been sent to the landfill and abusers like Harvey Weinstein are getting what they deserve. But it’s still an industry that lives on gossip, word of mouth, and reputation. Becoming known as difficult is the kiss of death, and that will never change.
What will also never change is that there will always be ambitious young women, and men, willing to not “be difficult” when a career advance is dangled in front of them. So that confuses the situation. And such compliance is fraught with danger and disappointment. “Did you hear about the Polish actress?” a disgusting Hollywood joke that manages to be both sexist and racist (plus a reflection of the bitterness writers often feel as their work is butchered by producers and directors). “She fucked the writer.”
Damn but it’s an ugly business. Makes me sincerely glad my phone stopped ringing years ago.