Trying Out for the DGA

Trying Out for the DGABefore my encounter with Walt Coy, I had explored a couple other avenues to making films. The summer after my graduation from Seattle University I enrolled in a film class at the UW. As with any college course there were books to read and classroom lectures, but precious little hands on instruction. Our main assignment for the quarter was to make a film. I shot some footage (8mm) around campus, but with no story behind it, it was never finished, (nor for that matter, did anyone else in that class, I believe).

The other track that I explored was a little out of the ordinary. I came across a notice about a film school in Paris, France – the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, or IDHEC for short. With a major in French, this seemed to be an appropriate possibility for gaining hands on experience in an interesting location. I took their contact info and wrote out a query letter – what did it take academically to be admitted, what were the costs, etc. And sent it off to them.

I received a reply, but I cannot remember what it said exactly. I have looked for it in my records, to no avail. (I did find a cache of junior high materials, high school and college notebooks, etc., and other correspondence from that time period). I am certain that it came with no offer of scholarship, otherwise I would have delved into it more.

Anyway, life intervened. I was married, and holding down my assistant manager position at the Fifth Avenue theater in Seattle, and was content.

Then, either my friend Pat, or myself caught wind of another opportunity to break into the other end of the business. We learned that the Directors Guild of America was accepting applications for their assistant director (AD) training program. We put our heads together and decided we both would make the attempt.

We sent our applications in, with the required extra stuff (photos). We were both notified that the applications were accepted, and made plans to fly down to LA for the entrance examination. So come that particular weekend, we left our significant others behind, (me – my wife, and Pat – his girl friend Wendy).

After our flight, we drove to Hollywood and checked into our hotel down the street from the Capitol Records building. It was one of those structures with the rooms opening onto the pool in the center. We didn’t swim. We had no time, nor swimsuits.

The next morning, we checked out and drove straight to the USC campus where the exam was to be administered. We didn’t even stop for breakfast. (We probably didn’t have time – Pat always flew by the seat of pants, a fact that would get us into more trouble later). I remember being quite hungry, so I was glad to see some donuts left out for the attendees. A pretty good size crowd milled about the square, grazing on the pastry.

A couple hours passed with number two pencils and the test sheets, then we were free for the rest of the day. Obviously it would be a while before we heard any results.

We drove back into Hollywood to see the sights. We had lots of time to kill before our flight out that evening.  For the most part, we just stayed in the car and rubber necked. We wanted to cover as much ground as possible. Besides, we didn’t have any money with us for tickets to any of the attractions – Mann’s Chinese or the Wax Museum. Ours was the real cheap tour (we didn’t even buy one of the Maps to the Stars).

We did pick up some lunch, but that too we ate in the car. We parked on a little side road somewhere, near a playground. I know it was past the noon hour for the light was coming in at us at an angle that signaled that it was well past the meridian. It had the look of one of those odd things you always remember, for it is so out of the ordinary.

I had been keeping a wary eye on the clock, and was glad when at last Pat pointed the car towards the airport. He misjudged the time needed to negotiate the LA freeways. We got to the airport okay, but we missed our flight. And the next flight to Seattle wasn’t until the next morning. Not having the wherewithal for anything else, we spent the night in the terminal, hungry.

We did get back to Seattle the next day, and waited for our answers.

Neither of us made the cut. Not long after our paths diverged and I lost contact with Pat and Wendy.

Years later, I heard that Pat had continued to go down to LA for the yearly exam, and eventually he did move to LA. But it was his girl friend Wendy who was accepted into the DGA program. She was the DGA trainee on the Barbra Streisand film “All Night Long,” and later the second second assistant director on the Nick Nolte, Debra Winger starrer “Cannery Row.”

[Aside – Wendy once told me that she was related to the inventor of a submachinegun. And I believed her. After all her last name was Thompson].

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

We were canyon dwellers in Seattle, and spent the majority of our time in the one canyon called Fifth Avenue. Out where our apartment was located the canyon was a little more open, but as we trudged off to work the canyon walls grew steeper and the shadows lengthened. My wife’s place of work came first on the trek up the arroyo. She cashiered at the Coliseum theater, a gleaming white Roman-like structure at the corner of Fifth and Pike. (Bruce Lee was mixing it up with Chuck Norris in “Return of the Dragon”). My theater was farther up the avenue past our opposition, SRO’s Music Box theater, at this juncture running the first run hit, “Chinatown”, the Jack Nicholson starrer, directed by Roman Polanski.

[Aside – though I was gone from the UA Cinema, I remained in contact with the cinephile’s there. Pat and Wendy, Karl, Stephen and Billie caught the film at the Music Box, too. We all liked it. Except Billie. For some strange reason she took umbrage to the red and green Lucky Strike cigarette packages, an Art Director’s touch that lent an additional layer of authenticity for the rest of us.]

On the first day I walked under the marquee, it was lettered with the title “Uptown Saturday Night,” a comedy starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. Oddly, it was double billed with “The Getaway” (the Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw version, directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Walter Hill).

I have a lot of memories linked to the entrance of the Fifth Avenue theater. At break times I relieved the cashier in the octagonal box office, which sat smack dab in the center of the entrance. I took tickets at the ornate doors behind and in line with the box office. I changed the posters in the large shadow box frames lining the sides of the entrance. And I watched one building come down, and another go up.

By the time we changed our bill of fare (two thrillers – “The Black Windmill,” directed by Don Siegel; doubled with “The Day of the Jackal,” directed by Fred Zinneman) some big changes were underway across the street. The Fifth Avenue sat across from the White Henry Stuart Building. Both were within that section of Seattle known as the Metropolitan Tract. This valuable acreage of real estate is owned by the University of Washington, having been the former campus of the school (prior to 1895). The decision had been made to demolish the White Henry Stuart building in order to put up a newer and bigger structure. Now as the wrecking balls moved into place and began battering away at the canyon wall in front of us, we were introduced little by little to views of the setting sun on Puget Sound. The pounding continued throughout our run of “Airport 75” (directed by Jack Smight), and the pile drivers added their tune somewhere along the line to our Christmas film, “The Front Page” (directed by Billy Wilder, assisted by Howard Kazanjian). By the time John Cassavetes’ film “Woman Under the Influence”  moved in, we were treated to the spectacle of a non-ending convoy of cement trucks adding their contents to the continuous pour that resulted in that “golf-tee” like structure that is the base of the Rainier Tower. And two huge cranes worked in tandem as the new building sprouted up forty stories.

At one of these change of billings, I was almost seriously wounded by a falling plate glass window. No, it did not wing in from across the street. I was changing posters in that afore mentioned shadow box frame. The posters were enclosed behind two huge pieces of sliding plate glass. A cylindrical lock slid on and off a bayonet-type piece of metal that was attached to the plate glass that slid behind the other. I had just unlocked and removed the lock, and was gripping the plate glass in front to slide it open when that glass cracked in half. All the weight of the upper portion of the window came down on top of my right thumb, glanced off, and crashed back into the box frame, instead of falling towards me and chopping me off at the ankles.

The incident gave me pause to reflect. I had the smallest of wounds on the knuckle of my thumb, a mere quarter inch long (and a tiny scar that lasted a decade or so). It left me with a deep sense of gratitude. A thankfulness for God’s protection from injury. Something I will always remember.