WHAT’S A NICE PERSON LIKE YOU DOING IN A JOB LIKE THIS?
“I met her first when she was thirteen,” says Mitchum. You wonder at such a statement.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been ravished by bandits,” says Rita. “But I was ravished by Jose Ferrer. In a movie. Does that count?”
Mitchum and Hayworth appeared in Fire Down Below in 1957, and it was Mitchum who persuaded Miss Hayworth to accept the present role. “She’s very withdrawn,” says Mitchum. “Very shy.”
“I’m not that shy,” said Miss Hayworth, playfully kicking at his shins. “I’m shy because I was working in Tijuana when I was, like, thirteen.”
“That should make you aggressive. I’ve known girls working Tijuana when they were thirteen. All of them aggressive, stopping you on the street.”
“I wasn’t working Tijuana, Bob! I was working in Tijuana. I was dancing with my father when I was thirteen. Four shows a day. And I had to go to Chula Vista across the border between shows for school lessons. I always resented it. I hated being different. I wanted to go to school regular hours like the rest of the kids.”
“You told me you made Blood and Sand when you were thirteen,” said Mitchum, slyly twittering. “You mean you went to school in Chula Vista, danced in Tijuana, and made Blood and Sand all when you were thirteen years old? You were a swinging teenager.”
“I made Blood and Sand when I was, like, nineteen.”
“The same year I made Desire Me. Like, when I was twelve and a half.”
“Who was in that movie?”
“Idiot. Who else?”
“I think Doris Duke.”
Miss Hayworth laughs. “Whatever happened to Doris Duke?”
“She got rich. She made a killing in the stock market.”
“Wasn’t there something about a husband? Crushed in a gate or something? Some kind of mess.”
Mitchum nodded. “A mess. – I saw her in Paris recently. She looked well.”
“I wish I were in Paris now. Or the south of France. Isn’t there a picture I can do in the south of France?”
“I tried to get them to do this one there. So it’s 1920 and a Latin American country. We could have faked it. Here we are 7,700 feet in the Sierra Madres, and if we’d played our cards right we could have been in Nice.”
“I don’t like Nice,” said Rita. “It’s too fattening.”
“France is. Especially when you love frog legs Provençale.”
“They’ve got frog legs in Guanajuato, for Christ sake. Guanajuato – what do you think it means? Jumping frog. You’re in frog country.”
“And you’d better jump,” said producer-director Ralph Nelson, gently nudging Miss Hayworth to tell her she was wanted for the next scene.
“I love to jump,” said Miss Hayworth, rising. “I used to play leap frog — ”
“Maybe in Tijuana, when you were thirteen?” said Mitchum with a smile.
Rita smiled back after pantomiming a slap to Bob’s cheek.
The Wrath of God, based on a novel by James Graham, co-stars Victor Buono, John Colicos, Ken Hutchison, and Paula Pritchett. Director of photography of the MGM release is Alex Phillips, Jr.
The film was a major bomb (although I liked it!), but I think there were political (intra-studio) reasons for its being virtually thrown away by MGM (but that is another story).
I’m here to talk about the job of the unit publicist.
If you have only a vague idea what a unit publicist is, join the vast club out there. Many a neophyte producer doesn’t know either. Not to mention some of the more seasoned ones. It is a profession only dimly understood and appreciated even less.
On the first day of production of The Chosen, I introduced myself as the film’s unit publicist to one of the young co-stars, Barry Miller. He said, with more chastisement than sympathy, “Don’t you know how little respect people have for you?”
Robert Mitchum told me in his laconic way of one film where the production manager told him they were going to have to get rid of the publicist. “Why?” Mitchum asked. “I like him.” “Because," said the production manager, “he’s a cocksucker.” “In that case,” said Mitchum, “you better get rid of the director as well.”
Mitchum smirked. “Besides, isn’t that the first requirement for being a publicist?”
When I didn’t respond, he said, “I hope you know I’m kidding.”
As laconic as he, I replied, “I hope you know I hoped so.”
You would think that a seasoned producer like Joseph E. Levine of Embassy Pictures would have a clearer idea than most of what a unit publicist does. Nevertheless, two days after the completion of principal photography on Tattoo, he sent me word that I was dismissed, my job done. I sent word right back: my job wasn’t done by half. If I left then, he would sacrifice all writing materials that would be needed at the time of the film’s release: final production notes, biographies of all the principals, synopsis, features on the art and history of tattooing, etc., copy that would normally be incorporated into press kits for distribution to the media at the time of the film’s release. His associates passed the word along to him (I tried to deal with him as indirectly as possible at all times). I could imagine him going into one of his famed tirades, screaming that I was cheating him, demanding to know why I hadn’t written the stuff earlier (quick answer: no time, too busy with all the other stuff that a unit publicist is involved with during shooting). He passed the word along to me, “You got one more week.”
I pulled the material together in less time than that, actually, and got it to Levine. I’d been told that he wanted to read every word. He did, that night. Next day I ran into him in the lobby of his office building, and he beamed at me. “I read what you wrote. I like it. I didn’t know you guys did that.”
Translated: “I didn’t know unit publicists wrote the kind of polished copy that appears in press kits.” The mind boggles. At the time of Tattoo, Levine was a veteran producer and distributor with more than twenty solid and successful years behind him. I had worked on his staff in 1967 at the time both The Graduate and The Producers were in production and had written and supervised hundreds of weekly mailings to exhibitors and press about both films. I wondered if Levine thought I’d made it all up out of my head without a bedrock of unit copy to guide me. Did he think the unit publicists acted merely as a guide or deterrent to visits from the press?
His reputation for firing unit publicists was notorious, and hilarious stories (well, hilarious to those who heard them later) were told in the industry about at least two such firings. I had been determined to make it through Tattoo and had concluded that staying out of his way was as good a way as any of assuring job longevity. It almost backfired on me. After successfully eluding Levine for two weeks, he paid a rare surprise visit accompanied by his chauffeur to the Tattoo production office. Eyeing me, he raised his walking stick like a wand and advanced on me like something wicked come this way from Oz, shouting, “I’ve caught you at last!” He struck me as funny, a demented Frank Morgan, but he seemed determined to strike me otherwise. “I’ve never struck anybody in twenty years,” he said, plainly demonstrating his intention of remedying that. I tried to laugh it off as the joke it clearly was not and got out of the office fast while everybody including the chauffeur looked on dumbstruck.
On Tattoo I had not only Levine to deal with toward the tail end of his producing career but Bruce Dern as well. Dern had a wicked sense of humor that I often enjoyed, particularly when I wasn’t its target. In the film Dern played a characteristically psycho role with a degree of personality carry-over from character to actor but insisted from day one that the character was not a psycho: he kidnapped and tattooed girls not because he was crazy but because it was his way of expressing love. Five years after the film’s release, Dern admitted in print that the role was as over the edge as any he’d ever played, and God and every movie-goer knows that Dern has played some lulus. But during production, Dern was like Rodney Dangerfield demanding respect; he wanted respect for his character, and this attitude didn’t make life any easier for me or for the unit photographer, whom I supervised. Dern insisted that no photographs be taken of him when he was engaged in a “menacing gesture.” After I argued with him about the need for stills of a scene in which his character sticks a hypodermic needle into the arm of co-star Maude Adams, he started giving me a new (fortunately temporary) salutation when I appeared on set: scumbag. Imagine a nice person like me in a screaming match with Bruce Dern as you’ve seen him on screen at his most characteristically psycho! Indeed, what was I doing in a job like that? Later on I shouted him down after he had blown up at me because I had shown some photos of Bruce to his wife and to Maude Adams before he saw them. It’s not the way a unit publicist likes to work, nor should he have to. Still, playing the heavy opposite Bruce Dern was sort of fun as long as such scenes were minimal. Most films are fun. At least in retrospect. While you’re working on them, the stress is such that you hardly have time to notice.
I asked him if he’d mind signing a book I had bought, The Films of Paul Newman.
He blushed and said he was on his way to direct a scene, but he’d be back.
No sooner had he left the room than Joanne Woodward’s stand-in and two extras came running over to me. “What did you tell him? He turned beet red!”
I explained. The stand-in looked shocked, then amused. “But didn’t you know? He never signs autographs!”
The funny thing was, I never asked stars to sign autographs (well, rarely). And here I’d asked the one star who made it a point and a policy never to give them. I felt extremely foolish. I could have kicked myself. Newman was one of the nicest people with whom I had ever worked, and now I felt I’d endangered my relationship with him.
About fifteen minutes later, Newman was back. He nudged me as I sat working at one of the tables. “Where’s your book?”
I gave it to him. He scribbled something, then pushed the book back to me, and waited until I read the inscription. It was my turn to blush. He laughed and went back to the set. The stand-in and her friends came running back to me, astonished that they had witnessed Paul actually autographing something. I was pleased to show them what he had written: “To Tom – a ray of intelligence in a vocation not noted for it – Paul.”
A plus for me, and grateful was I for it; but what a rap for my vocation. I think that one of my qualities that Paul responded to was my restraint, the low-keyed way in which I worked. Also I had done my homework. I had seen the play on which the film was based and I knew its history and critical reception. I knew everything there was to know professionally about Newman and Joanne Woodward, his wife and the film’s star. Restraint and preparation: two good words for all budding unit publicists to know.
Speak of a Hollywood publicist and the image is still likely to be something like the character Lee Tracy played some sixty years ago in the Jean Harlow film Bombshell: quintessentially hot-shot, high-powered, fast-talking. Not unlike that other well-known characterization of the Hollywood publicist in A Star Is Born, played in various versions by Lionel Stander and Jack Carson. A few of these types may still be around, but their numbers are few and more likely to be found with an independent or “outside” public relations agency than with a studio. Such outside agencies have moved into the void left by the closing or truncating of the studio publicity offices.
So what is it that a unit publicist does? And why a unit? And if an outside agency is on the film as well as a unit publicist, what does it do?
In the heyday of the Hollywood studios, each production was called a unit and given a unit number. A studio staff publicist would be assigned to the unit to be responsible for all copy written about a film during its production (biographies, news releases, photo identifications and captions, etc). Hence unit publicist. Normally assignment to a unit had depended on availability, and a producer or director for the most part had no input or much interest in who was assigned as publicist. It was assumed, irrespective of truth, that whoever it was would probably be a spy for the studio, and the impression of unit publicist as antagonist remains in residual form today. The term persists as something of an anachronism, being used as a shorthand for function rather than denoting a line between the production and the parent body’s publicity department.
Some unit publicists call themselves by other titles and may be billed as such: publicity coordinator, production publicist, public relations, publicist. The search for other nomenclature is understandable. The term “unit publicist” sounds to some who practice the profession not only arcane but archaic and denotes too much the functionary. A name to define the present function has not been found. (I like “information coordinator.”)
The person who filled this job was not widely credited on screen until the early 1970s. I received my first screen credit in 1974 with The Happy Hooker for Cannon Films, having already worked without film credit on four films for MGM (Alex in Wonderland, Shaft, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, and The Wrath of God), two for Twentieth Century-Fox (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and The Last American Hero), and one for Paramount (Mikey and Nicky, filmed in 1973 but not released until 1976). The Publicists Guild made no issue over screen credit, and the individual publicist had to use such leverage as he or she could.
So what does a unit publicist do?
First and foremost, you deal with attitudes. More often than not, you are working in a maelstrom of conflict, tension, personality, and politics. You must mobilize the good will and support of just about everyone in every department, but particularly the department heads, all of whom he needs favors from at one time or another. The publicist must declare allegiances but not too loudly. You must keep distances but be able to close a distance swiftly when necessary. Axes fall on the most exalted heads, and you must not be standing so near to the beheaded that you trip over the head as it rolls.
If there is a star (that is, star! Superstar!) on a film, the publicist often works through the star’s personal public relations agency. All interviews that the star does are either set up by or cleared through the agency, with the publicist arranging for the time and location of the interview. (But beware of the bugs: if an interview is to be done on location, bet on it that the shooting location or time will change without notice. The publicist will arrive with the interviewer to find the crew wrapping up to move to a new location and the star dismissed for the day.)
To write production notes that will be used in the press kit, the publicist must gather, from a wide variety of sources and people, the necessary material, a process that is on-going throughout the shoot. (But Publicist, beware of not doing your homework ahead of time. “What have you done in the past, Mr. Mitchum?” is not a question you want to ask.) The publicist writes these notes sketchily at the start of or even prior to principal photography, revising and enlarging them into as complete a set of information about the production as can be mustered by the time the film wraps or as soon thereafter as possible. The facts ideally include a film’s start and stop dates, locations, anecdotal material about the shooting, biographical information on the principals, sources for the screenplay, and a thematic description of the project that may touch upon but does not necessarily reveal narrative materials.
In addition to biographies of the principals, a publicist would sometimes be asked to write feature stories. This type of story could at one time be assured of publication in small-town newspapers, usually picked up from the elaborate press books featuring copy along with advertising mats for the film in question. Press books are rarely prepared anymore, although they were still being done on the first few films I worked on at MGM. They are collector’s items now.
The unit publicist would write column items, either for immediate placement with a local or syndicated columnist or for use at the time of the film’s release. Of course, by time of release the items might no longer be current, but the column planter (Mike Hall in New York was my favorite) would still be able to use them. Columns did have to be filled, and it was important to get the titles of new releases into print in whatever context. Examples:
Filming a “safe” scene for The Last American Hero, Jeff Bridges, driving his own racing car, became interlocked with a stunt driver’s vehicle, spinning both cars into a spectacular crash. Director Lamont Johnson called it the best “stunt” in the picture, and luckily nobody was hurt.
Joanne Woodward dreamed she got up, put make-up and costume on, and did a scene for The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds just before her alarm went off and she had to get up and do exactly what she had dreamed.
Okay, sometimes it is a stretch!
Filler copy is anecdotal material that is usually indistinguishable from a column item except that preferably the column item is shorter, pithier. Filler is suitable for special pages and columns such as “Page Six” (New York Post) and “People Page” (New York Daily News). Editors and copy writers frequently embellish them with additional material obtained from other sources or perhaps from a follow-up call to the publicist.
A bit of filler as written:
They laughed when he sat down to play dept. But not at Richard Gere who in The Cotton Club plays his own cornet. Gere played the horn as a teenager but took it up in earnest to portray a jazz musician who likes musically to prowl with the black cats of Harlem. He studied with famed horn men Warren Vaché and Jim Maxwell, and one of the key turns he plays is Louis Armstrong’s “The Butter & Egg Man.”
As it appeared on the “People Page” of the New York Daily News, December 12, 1983:
Richard Gere loves to blow his own horn, and that’s just what he’ll be doing in the upcoming movie, Cotton Club. But before you go getting the wrong impression about Mr. G, we’re speaking about trumpets – not self praise.
Gere had to play the horn in the flick, so jazz great Warren Vaché was brought in to give the star pointers on how to fake playing the instrument.
But it turned out that Gere played the trumpet when he was in high school. So Vaché gave him some real lessons. When director Francis Coppola wandered into one of the sessions he was so impressed with the mellow sounds Gere was producing that he decided to use him on the soundtrack.
Look out, Al Hirt.
Since the publicist can’t always be present on set, he must rely on friends to provide him with the latest amusing tidbits. His being tied in with the gossip crowd is functional as well as fun.
The unit publicist provides the distributing company with a cast and crew list as soon into production as possible. He writes identification captions for all photos taken by the stills photographer, mostly black and white, which come to him on contact sheets, approximately thirty-five shots to the page. These ID captions do just what the name implies: identify the actors, not necessarily frame-by-frame, but by sheet or roll if a roll is devoted to one scene and one set of actors. Also the action of the scene is cursorily described. Here’s an example from the first two sheets for The Cotton Club:
1 Sheet Speakeasy. Sol Weinstein (JULIAN BECK), in hat, described as “death Yiddish style,” is the bodyguard of Dutch Schultz as well as his personal hit man; here he is keeping an eye on Dixie Dwyer, played by RICHARD GERE.
28-33 In beard and glasses, director FRANCIS COPPOLA.
34-35 Sol Weinstein (JULIAN BECK).
2 1-4A See above.
5-22 Speakeasy. Musicians.
23A Asst. director ROBERT GIROLAMI, actress NOVELLA NELSON and other actresses.
24 GREGORY HINES & FRANCIS COPPOLA.
25-39A L to R: MAURICE HINES, SR. and son GREGORY HINES. Production shot.
31-35 GREGORY HINES & COPPOLA (in white hat) watch videotape playback of a scene just recorded.
When The Cotton Club wrapped on December 13, 1983 (not taking into account the two weeks of additional shooting in the spring of 1984), still photographer Adger Cowans had shot 410 rolls of black and white film that had to be so captioned.
The unit publicist is the custodian of the photographer’s color slides (or transparencies), selecting from them something that may be suitable for immediate deployment, say to Time or Newsweek for their “People” and “Newsmakers” pages. He shows both contact sheets and transparencies to those principal players whose contract specifies that he or she has “kill rights,” meaning that the actor has the right to prohibit the use of a contractually specified percentage (it could be as much as 50 percent, sometimes 100 percent) of all photographs in which the actor appears, whether taken by unit or special photographers. “Showing” the contact sheets sounds easier than it is. A set of all contact sheets in which the actor’s photograph appears must be relinquished to the actor, who may take two days or two weeks to slash, with a red china marker, through each frame determined to be unflattering. The publicist then has to prepare a list of all “kills,” which is sent to all pertinent parties: distributing company, outside PR agency, and anyone else who has been authorized to receive a set of contact sheets. The unit publicist must ascertain at the start of production who has kill rights and begin the process of kills immediately with any actor having that right because of the limited time involved.
Given the expense (up to a dollar per page), the number of contact sets authorized to be printed is limited. Ordinarily the distributing company gets a set, and a set is retained in the production office for ready referral during the making of the film. The outside publicity agency, if there is one, gets a set. The unit publicist, who works most actively with the contact sheets during production, of course has his own copy. In some instances the stills photographer is allowed a set.
Especially when established stars and directors are involved, many productions maintain a “closed set” policy: press access is prohibited or limited to special and favored cases. The policy is guaranteed to engender hostility in the local press when a big star arrives in town to film and tells the publicist that he or she will have neither the time nor the energy to do production interviews. The publicist must relay this information to a lot of angry and disappointed people. A closed set doesn’t make a publicist’s life any easier. He would much rather look at the shooting schedule and the schedule of press visits and say, “Sure, come along, how’s Tuesday? Maybe you can eat with Francis during his lunch break.”
Every publicist should have this slogan on a framed sampler facing his desk: Watch Your Words Carefully! A slip before the press or even the star’s personal public relations people can lead to misunderstanding, a strained relationship with the star, or outright disaster. A case in point:
In Florida on Harry and Son, I got a call authorized by Paul Newman’s PR people in California from a reporter for USA Today. Wally Beene, a Rogers and Cowan account executive, had sent the reporter a photograph taken by stills photographer Ron Phillips showing Newman as a construction worker walking an exposed beam twenty stories high. The reporter asked how the shot was taken. I told him a platform just big enough for the camera, cameramen, sound people, and equipment had been built about three feet below the beams and a camera was trained upward at Newman on the beam. The reporter had another question: “I hear Paul is scared of heights?”
Jesus, Tommy, when will you learn to keep your mouth shut? I had mentioned to Wally that when Paul came down from the beam, he joked, “Put me in a racing car any day at any speed, it’s better than being up there standing still!” Wally had been amused, and I could understand why he wanted to pass it along to the reporter. Instead of saying something smart and noncommittal like “Not that I know of,” I proceeded to give the reporter an off-the-cuff version of what I was later to write in the production notes: “He (Newman) finds it ironic that he should be playing a construction worker in Harry and Son because of a mild apprehension he harbors about heights. He enjoys being at the helm of a speeding car on a racetrack because, as he says, there on terra firma and himself driving, he feels in control. So he found it funny that his stomach should threaten flip-flops at the thought of heights. His own apprehension did not extend to his character’s (Harry), however, and he put his qualms on hold for the scene in which Harry walks the bare beam of a skeletal building to ask a foreman about a job, then grows dizzy and sinks to a sitting position on the beam (for it is Harry’s health and not any apprehension about heights that causes the dangerous dizzy spell). Newman found it exhilarating walking an exposed beam twenty stories high. Still, he was just as glad to get back with both feet on the ground.”
The day the picture and nine-paragraph story appeared in USA Today, I arrived on set totally unaware of its publication. Paul and Robby Benson were doing a scene in a bowling alley coffee shop. Paul was playing from a seat at the counter. I slipped into a booth that I hoped was out of the actors’ line of vision. After the scene was finished, Paul came over to where I was sitting and said casually, “Tom,” as though in greeting. I replied, “Paul.”
“How did that happen?” he asked.
I was confused and showed it.
“USA Today,” he said. “It’s right there in print, in this morning’s paper—‘Tom Miller says Paul Newman is deathly afraid of heights.’”
My body temperature must have shot up five degrees. Joanne Woodward joined us, asking Paul, “What’s the problem?”
“The USA Today story,” he said.
Joanne looked at me sympathetically. “That was unfortunate.”
Paul sat in the booth opposite me, his eyes as piercingly judgmental as they were blue. “You’re here to protect me,” he said. “This is all make-believe. The movie, me—all image. When you destroy any portion of the image, you destroy it all. You’ve got to be extremely careful what you say to these people.”
When I found a copy of USA Today, I became, if anything, angrier than Paul. I told him so at the dailies that night. “I’ve been grossly misquoted!”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Paul, sipping a Budweiser, “but join the club.”
Joanne said, “Now you know what we’ve been going through for years.”
Some would say the USA Today story is innocuous, merely anecdotal, publicity, after all. Perhaps, but it was nevertheless wounding, in a sensitive moment, to Paul Newman and doubly wounding to me because of the distortion of information that I had given the story’s writer. Imagine then how wounded a director or actor can be by a truly malicious item and story, which the Jack Matthews piece in USA Today was not. During the making of The Cotton Club, malicious items appeared repeatedly about both Francis Coppola and Richard Gere. On separate occasions each of them expressed to me their paranoia and frustration with the same words: “They all hate me.” One of the few things on which actor and director totally agreed.
The unit publicist is a trouble-shooter on locations, especially when the company is filming street scenes to which the public has access or scenes in a private or commercial establishment which the company has rented but over which it lacks total control of access. (A real horror story occurred during the first week of location shooting on The Cotton Club when the proprietor of the building where we were filming decided to ride our publicity coattails by personally inviting local New York City television crews to visit our location in his building, but that’s a story that deserves fuller treatment elsewhere.) The publicist, often with the help of production assistants, tries to dissuade free-lance photographers or, failing that, to block their view. But the company may not forbid the taking of photographs on public streets, and photographers know it.
It is considered important, especially during the early weeks of production, that the unit publicist as representative of the company control the distribution and release of photographs. The work of unauthorized photographers is usually inferior to that of unit or special photographers for obvious reasons, and frequently the unauthorized pictures end up in sleazy publications. When a film has a star like Newman, Gere, or John Travolta, it is virtually impossible to keep the unwanted photographers away; and there are times when, from a public relations standpoint, it is to the film’s advantage to let them get their shots. Freelancers can be tenacious, worrisome, and obnoxious, especially when too relentlessly denied. Most of the earlier photographs published during the making of The Cotton Club were unauthorized.
When a special photographer is authorized to work in addition to the unit photographer, a host of in-house clearances must be obtained and a platoon of people notified, especially if a special photo session (i.e., away from the set) is planned. The director, assistant directors, make-up, wardrobe, hair, production manager, director of photography, stills photographer, gaffers, electricians, props, set dressers—in some cases all must be notified either by the publicist or by the production office staff. The publicist may need the help of some or all of these departments in setting up a photo session for the special photographer. The special arrives for special session work with an assistant, sophisticated strobe lights, umbrellas, light stands, and other equipment. Either the cinematographer or the production manager will notify the camera local (in New York, Local 644). If the special photographer is not a member of this local, the company must pay a stand-by union photographer one day’s wages for each day the special works. The stills photographer will not be happy about the special’s presence because of what he or she perceives to be royal and preferential treatment given the special and believes that he or she could do as good a job as the special if only given equal opportunity and cooperation. The stills photographer is also irked because magazines give a special’s work preference and photo credit, which the unit photographer rarely receives. (It is an injustice that I’ve tried to correct on my later films, most successfully with Adger Cowans on The Cotton Club, Cowans’s work being regularly credited by magazines. But The Cotton Club was a special case: I had control of all photographs taken by the stills photographer throughout production and for several weeks following completion of principal photography, when finally I was allowed to turn them over to the distributing company, Orion Pictures.)
When a special photographer is hired, the actors to be photographed must be notified and their schedules cleared. In some cases a star has approval and veto power over a special photographer, if not overtly then covertly. It isn’t easy to clear schedules. The photographers often must be locked into specific days because of their own busy schedules. The unit publicist works with other production people in ascertaining what days would be best. The photographer will want the star to be working in a scene crucial to the movie, preferably one offering great visuals. Events may knock the shooting schedule askew so that neither the star nor the crucial scene is before the camera on the day the special arrives to work. The publicist hastily tries to arrange for the star to be brought in for the day for a special photo session (usually this possibility has to be foreseen and the star’s cooperation obtained in advance).
Photographs authorized, unauthorized, special, and unit take up an inordinate amount of a unit publicist’s time. Even with a plethora of magnifying glasses and loupes and light boxes, I sometimes felt I was going blind looking at all the tiny frames and color transparencies, trying to be properly judgmental about them.
Should an outside public relations firm be assigned to the film, some of the duties of the unit publicist, especially those pertaining to initial and preparatory press contacts, may be performed by this agency. The agency’s term of employment is usually from pre-production through release of the film, most likely a period of a year or more. The agency may plant column items sent to them by the unit publicist or items that they themselves originate. At the same time, of course, the agency will be working with and for other clients: other films, stars, rock groups, circus acts, restaurants, night clubs, whatever. The agency will work closely with the distributing company in the long-range planning of stories about the film, especially with regard to placement in magazines whose content must be planned and prepared some months in advance.
For a film that didn’t want production publicity (well, Coppola didn’t), The Cotton Club broke records for press mentions: we were always on the tip of an anonymous tongue. Yet while the picture did okay at the box office, it did not do spectacularly well. It received rave reviews and pans, and it was the subject of extensive magazine and newspaper coverage with major photographic layouts. Still, despite its cause célèbre status in New York and Los Angeles and the feeling of those who worked on the film that it had been publicized to death, it did not draw in compelling numbers the moviegoers that its producers and distributing company had anticipated. And perhaps being over-publicized was part of the reason.
A publicist beginning work on a film never knows, nor does anyone else connected with it, if it is going to be a hit and/or an “important” film. In retrospect, if it bombs, you might recollect that you said to yourself when you first read the script, “But how can they shoot this garbage?” Or, “How can they go with that has-been director?” Or, “Don’t they know this actor is going to sink it?”
But hope springs eternal. Or at least a semblance of it should for the unit publicist who must prepare intelligent, usable background material and copy for each of his films. Just in case.
Right: Tom appearing as extra on fishing boat in Paul Newman's "Harry and Son." At the rushes Newman exclaimed, "There's our Tom acting his heart out!"
NOTE: This is an except from Tom’s memoir “A Fever of the Mad,” his account of working on movies that was published under his pen name Tom Canford. The work also includes a long account of his working on Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” and a much longer one about working on the Francis Coppola movie “The Cotton Club.”