Update Interview with
At the time he had 250 hours of interviews on video and a storyboard made up of index cards on a wall. He was still actively looking for subjects, and by the time I left that afternoon, he had pried contact info out of me for more people to interview. That's how he got every person in his film - someone knew someone else and gave him a phone number. He is his own "research department" and he never misses a networking opportunity.
At that point, Rick was looking toward showing his film at theater festivals and hopefully putting it on a DVD. He wasn't completely sure how he was going to accomplish that, since he was basically a one-man show with no budget, but he had already put five years of his life into the project, and he wasn't taking no for an answer.
As his fans now know, Broadway: The Golden Age made it to those festivals, played in movie theaters all over the country, and eventually landed on DVD with a Director's Commentary.
A few weeks ago, we sat down yet again for another formal interview because Rick is now making two sequels and his first film is showing on Public Television. The apartment is still small, and the two cats still have free reign, but the walls are now covered in movie posters - gifts from former interviewees who have now become friends. Fay Wray's piano stands proudly against the wall, a gift from his late friend to replace the one he sold to finance his film. We spoke at length, and covered a number of subjects.
Director's Commentary From Broadway: The Golden Age DVD
I did that on a dare. They told me I had to go to a studio, because it was in my contract that I had to deliver a finished DVD. I asked, "What's it going to cost?" and they said "$700 to $1,000." I told them, "I am so in debt from this movie, I can't do that. Besides, why can I record everyone in the movie in my apartment with my camera, and not record myself that way?" The sound guy said, "You have to stop and start, stop and start, and synch it with the movie." I said, "I have to stop and start once. The tapes are an hour long - period. The end." He said, "You can't talk for one hour straight ...," but anyone who knows me, knows that I certainly can do that!
I rigged up an old headphone from an airplane. I tore out one side and I had the audio coming out of my TV into my ear because I couldn't have the volume from the TV on. I had the camera focused at the floor, and the microphone in front of my mouth. I did the entire thing straight through, only stopping to change the tape. People constantly come up to me and quote lines from it, so they must be listening to it.
Current Broadway Ticket Prices
Broadway prices are now out of everybody's league. Here I am making this movie and I can only go, as Tennessee Williams would say, "through the kindness of strangers." People invite me. My best friends are Tony voters and Drama Desk voters because they get tickets to go. It's horrible because it becomes for a very small private sect and tourists.
Fred Ebb told me that when he got off his day job, he couldn't walk by the theater and not buy a ticket. He said, "If I had 55 cents in my pocket, I could not walk by." I did the math later. The top ticket price was $5.50 then, so it was 10%. If the top ticket now is $111, then the cheapest ticket should be $11. Can you imagine if the back of the mezzanine was 10%? It would be $11, which is the same price as a movie ticket. Can you imagine if a kid could spend $11 after he got off from work each day and see a Broadway play? Or if an actor could do that?
Still Going Against the Odds
In Los Angeles, I have to use my hotel room. Most production companies will use a hotel room, but in my case, I have to sleep in the room. Before every interview, I have to take all of my luggage and my toiletries and hide them in the closet. I have to get the maid up there fast, because it's supposed to look like no one has slept in the room. When Valerie Harper came, she came in with all of her dry cleaning over her arm and said, "Mr. McKay, I brought lots of costume changes for you" and before I could stop her, she slid open the sliding door of the closet, and all of my dirty underwear fell out, because I was stuffing it in with the clock ticking.
The next day, Dick Van Dyke wanted an appointment in the morning. He wanted a special person for hair and make-up who was scheduled for 9. At 8:10, I ordered room service and begged housekeeping to come up within the next 20 minutes. I was in my underwear, starting to get ready, and there was a knock at the door. I opened the door a small way to say to the maid, "One second" and Dick Van Dyke was standing there. He said, "Thirty-five minutes from Malibu - no traffic. Can you believe it?" I pulled my pants on and said, "Hungry? The make-up girl's not here yet" and I took him downstairs to buy him breakfast.
But it's meant to be, because then they sit and they really talk. Valerie Harper did three hours after that. She talked about the five or six Broadway shows she did as a chorus girl and how young Michael Bennett used to ask her and her best friend if they would come to the studio, because she was a dancer. She was in Li'l Abner as a Michael Kidd dancer fifty years ago.
In order to get the first film out there, I sold off my rights for 20 years, and the DVD and TV rights. By the grace of the God above who watches over independent film makers and those of us crazy enough to make our own documentaries, I have an apartment with decent rent and I keep shooting in it. People are still shocked when they get here. Glenn Close came with her publicist, her hair person, her make-up person, and her personal assistant, so I scheduled them in the next room over, which is really small. The bigger the person is, the bigger the entourage, and the bigger they are, the more intimate I want it to be. They take a look and realize they can't get into my small studio. I let the hair and make-up person squeeze by and look through the lens. Then they come out into the bigger room. I usually have an intern that gives them crackers and sodas. Glenn Close came from "The View." Her publicist said, "I didn't know there was a studio at 84th and West End" and when he came in the door, he said, "This isn't a studio" and I said, "No, I lied. It's a one bedroom. Come on in." Within ten minutes, Glenn was in tears because she got passionately into it. She started telling me about her first job being an understudy, going on between a matinee and an evening, two days before the show opened.
Part 2 - Broadway: Beyond The Golden Age
I decided to get back a little into the '50s, do the '60s, then the '70s. As I started doing it, I realized that was the last generation of household names that came out of the theater. I started tracking them down. I just did a long interview with Robert Redford. I spoke to Glenn Close, Liza Minnelli, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Jane Fonda. The '80s and '90s have not produced international stars that started on the stage in New York. As I constantly say, the world changes - it's not supposed to stay the same.
The classic sophomore slump theory implies that the second film may not live up to the first, but there's something very different happening here. It's much deeper. I've learned more; they trust me more. They saw the first film - sometimes that's great and sometimes it's not. Sometimes they tell me, "You won't believe it, I went to Walgreen's every night" and they start telling me the first movie. That's the one thing I can't use.
If they haven't seen the film, they come in like Liza and say, "Everybody I know is talking about this movie. I'm scared to watch it because I will just be in tears from beginning to end." But she just opened up and gave me what I wanted. She talked at length about the day her mother died. She talked about Kay Thompson, her godmother, and her influence, and about her father's work in theater, and Kander and Ebb, going into Chicago with five days' rehearsal to carry the show. She gave me everything I needed.
I'm still shooting. I'll be shooting in LA in March. I interviewed at least 50 people. A handful of them were in the first film. I spoke to Tommy Tune again. He just loves the film and promoted it so much that he asked me if I needed more. I told him I would love it because I know so much more now, and I have so many more questions to ask.
Ben Gazzara told me, "You have to do something different with this film. You have to go deeper. Ask everybody what was the price they paid. What did it cost them?" That was such a gift he gave me. When I asked Diahann Carroll that question, she looked to the side, then she started to talk while she wiped the tears that were pouring, about the price that everyone around you pays. Liza talked about the first time a maitre d' said, "Mr. Minnelli" to her husband. Glenn Close talked about having a child in boarding school, no husband, and walking alone to the theater as she saw families sitting down at tables through restaurant windows, and about going home alone later.
Then there's the other side, Estelle Parsons said, "Are you out of your mind? It's the most magnificent job in the world. Yeah, your kids do end up with drug problems from neglect, so you take a year off and you help them." It's interesting - they are willing to trust me and to go places. Redford initially said he would give me fifteen minutes, but we were there an hour and a half. I don't think anyone had tapped this in him before. When I spoke to Carol Burnett, no one had tapped those years with her before. To me, they're much more interesting. Redford's stories were amazing, growing up in LA and not wanting anything to do with movies. He wanted to be an artist. He traveled across the country and took a steamer to Paris. But he was stuck in New York one night before he got on the steamer and he went to the theater. He sat in the cheapest seat he could get and saw Long Day's Journey. He said, "Jason Robards changed my life." Before a year passed, he was back in New York to be an actor, working as a janitor at the AMDA Theatre at night. He would come in 10 to 2 as a janitor, and lean on his broom watching Christopher Plummer, saying, "I'm going to do this." He talked about how bad he was and how painful it was to learn how dishonest the business could be. It's just an amazing story of what he went through. He did five Broadway shows before he ever went to California.
After the first film came out, I got used to people saying, "I just saw your film," and I would say, "thank you" but one person said, "I just saw your film. Why didn't you just make a movie about the history of America and cut out George Washington? No Ethel Merman! SHAME!" The only person in the first film who was no longer alive was Laurette Taylor, but that's because I thought Ethel Merman was a given. I thought it was my duty to preserve stories that wouldn't have been caught if it weren't for me. Now that I've done that, the next one has a Merman and Martin chapter, which is quite fascinating when people talk about how they were such opposites.
I take stories from each person and start to edit those. I have Dick Van Dyke talking about doing Bye, Bye, Birdie and getting "Happy Face" out of town the night before he was supposed to do it. Then I start cutting Chita into the story, and then Susan Watson, who played the original Kim. I tracked her down. Next week I film Marge Champion, who talks about Gower directing it and choreographing it while she was helping him make it, so the Birdie chapter just gets thicker and richer. I edit Glenn Close's story of her first break, and then add Hal Prince. I'm doing it that way and showing people chunks of it. Redford talking about the first show he did with Liz Ashley. It was a huge flop, and how painful it was and the lesson he learned. How he didn't even go to the premiere of Barefoot because it was so painful, and how it affected the rest of his life, and how he handled success, and what he learned on Broadway. I'm editing them into each of these chapters, but there's a storyboard in the other room and that's taking shape.
Broadway: The Next Generation
The angle for the third movie is fixating on how these people are heroes because it is not a romantic time. They don't go to the movies and see films about life backstage on Broadway. First of all, nobody cares about that any more. Fame is ancient history and so is A Chorus Line. That was part of life in the '30s thru the '70s. Fashion was influenced by films like The Turning Point. Women who'd never been in a dance studio in their lives wore leg warmers. The theater influenced fashion, life, everything back then. That doesn't exist today, so my angle for the third film is that these people who come here in spite of that, are heroic. Cherry Jones said that when she came here, Central Park was full of broken glass and bums. If you couldn't sing and dance and be in A Chorus Line, you couldn't work. You had to go and learn your craft by auditioning for regional theater. To me, their struggle is more heroic, because nobody believed if you did well in a Broadway show, you'd be a huge star. They no longer have delusions that there would be stage-door Johnnies outside the door and flashbulbs would pop. Now you have to do it out of true passion against the odds.
It's far tougher now. I have a story about someone winning a Tony and the producers refused to acknowledge her in the ads because they said, "Yeah, what if you leave? Then we have to pay someone to replace you." They want the show to be the star, not the person. Cameron Mackintosh said, "Annie Get Your Gun was great with Ethel Merman, but then you've got to replace her. I've done the five biggest shows in history and my shows are the stars, not the people." That started a whole trend in the '80s and '90s - find a way to do starless shows that can play all over the world and never need a star. Look at Dolly and Mame - those two shows kept the careers of a whole generation of leading ladies from Hollywood and Broadway going. You always knew who the Dolly was, but you probably don't know who the Phantom is. It's written in such a way that no one person carries the show.
Finally - Public Television
After playing all over the country and being a success on DVD, Broadway: The Golden Age is now coming to PBS in New York on March 12th [see the schedule for all cities]. It's exciting because the film is so independent. I was a producer at City Arts when I started this, but when I went and pitched it to the regime then, they didn't think it was commercial because it was all old people. So, it's fascinating to go full circle to American Public Television. What makes it exciting is not just that I got a PBS deal out of passion and perseverance, but that kids and average people who don't have HBO or Showtime will be able to see it. A kid with a 12-inch black and white TV can stick a coat hanger on a broken-off antenna and have his life affected by this. The people who can't afford to go to a theater are the people the film should reach. Those people don't have cable. This movie can reach anybody with a TV. That makes me excited.
It will be shown during a pledge drive. I'll be there during the pledge breaks, talking with Barbara Cook, Elizabeth Ashley, and Jane Powell. There will be six or eight of us. I'm lining them up now. Each break they will come back to me and one or two of the stars. This is one show that the pledge breaks will be as interesting as the movie. I'm hoping it starts a relationship for the second or third. If anyone is thinking of pledging this year, then I hope they will wait until our showing in order to promote this kind of film.
Timeline For the Films
The goal is to have the second one done at the end of 2006, with the intention of it starting festivals in January, 2007. The big question for me to decide is if I want to go to PBS with it next March or April, or do I want to go theatrical again and go to PBS in the fall. I'm pretty sure I'm going to go theatrical again, but I'm not going to go with a distributor and give the entire movie away. Instead of going to 35 mm, which is $50,000, and then $1,500 a print to go in each theater, I'm going to go digital and go back to the theaters where we were a success, and do fewer cities. I'll go to them myself, basically bicycle my film around the country. I will come to each city and do Q&As - open it in New York, open it in LA, go to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago. It won't go to every small theater again.
The release of the third one will be for Christmas of '08. The DVD for the second one will be Christmas of '07. I'm also working on a book - the oral history of all three, intercut with the story of me tracking them down and the lessons I learned. I'm hoping to have that done by the time the third one comes out, so they can be cross promoted.
What Rick Has Learned Through This Journey
I don't have to be worried that success will change me, because success hasn't caught up to me yet! I have great success that the movie reached all these hundreds of thousands of people. It played five months in Australia, in every city. I'm on my way there, and coincidentally it opens in New Zealand on February 9th. You can't go any further than Australia, so our movie's gone as far as you can go without leaving the planet. It just keeps having this life.