When I graduated from the University of Iowa in the summer of 1973 (with an awesome “General Studies” degree), I moved to Minneapolis. Not long after arriving I managed to land a job with a motion picture lab that did work mainly for producers of TV spots and industrial films. I’d taken film studies and production courses at Iowa, but I think that what actually got me this job was having worked in a facility that processed and printed aerial reconnaissance film during the four years I was in the Air Force. Thus began my employment in a series of film labs over the next fifteen years or so, with my nine years at Technicolor being the most interesting by far.
For a long time I’d envisioned a life of making movies, of being involved with them in some way. But this was more of a wish, a fantasy, than anything that seemed remotely possible for an Iowa farm boy. Making short films and taking film studies courses in college fed that fantasy to a degree, but I think I was waiting for something to happen (rather than trying to figure out how to make it happen). Working in a 16mm lab in Minneapolis didn’t exactly fill the bill, but I was working with interesting people, many of whom became friends. And it was film, images on strips of celluloid. This was undeniably the film world (sort of), though I was on the periphery.
I moved to New York City in 1977 for another lab job, but this lab handled 35mm and occasionally made prints of feature films, some of them pornos (Inside Jennifer Wells, anyone?). This felt more like the real movie business, but the job turned out to be a disaster. The only time I’ve ever been fired from a job was this one, which was probably a good thing, since it would have taken me a lot longer to work up the nerve to quit on my own. But I’ve always thought, yeah, it was a terrible job, but it got me to New York, where I’ve been for 37 years.
I got the job with Technicolor a year later. The name itself had strong recognition value, and I felt that now I had a real connection to the film world. At the previous labs I’d been an expeditor as well as working in customer service. At Technicolor there were four or five expeditors who handled separate accounts. I was assisting a man from the Bronx named Joe Fratangelo, who had the United Artists account. I thought, “Wow! United Artists!” This felt like I was working for Cadillac instead of some place that made go-karts.
Joe Frat was an interesting guy. He really got my attention one day when Al Pacino was in the lab. Joe mentioned casually that years before, he and his wife would babysit Pacino in their home. I guess this is normal stuff and no big deal when you’re just part of it, but I was impressed.
Aside from the kick I got from being able to say I was working on the UA account at Technicolor, what I was really doing was writing up 16mm print orders of UA titles and helping Joe make sure schedules were met. This was before VHS had taken hold, let alone DVDs, so if a television station in Cincinnati was going to run Breakheart Pass, for example, they’d have to order a 16mm print from us. Super-8mm prints of features were also made to show on airlines. This all seems unbelievably bulky and inefficient now, but digital formats were still in the future.
Print elements for films (35mm & 16mm picture negatives and sound tracks) were stored in a vault in cans on racks that looked exactly like those in the photo below. This doesn’t show Technicolor’s vault, but it could have been. The vault at Technicolor is also where I kept my bicycle, which I rode nearly everyday from my from my apartment on West 92nd Street down to the lab at 321 West 44th.
At that time there were at least seven other labs in the city. Most of them are now long gone. DuArt Film Lab, where I worked briefly after Technicolor, is still here, but stopped processing film entirely in late 2010. This is ironic, since DuArt’s motto — displayed on t-shirts and shopping bags, and I think even on the side of their building — was “Shoot Film.” Before digital all major features were shot on 35mm, and until the late 80s all feature dailies were printed on film.
Maybe my end of it was the equivalent of working in a sausage factory, but across the hall from us was the dailies department office, which was run by Otto Paoloni and Joe Violante (aka “Joey V”). Any feature film that used Technicolor to process and print its 35mm footage went through this department. The printed footage, called “dailies,” would be shown to filmmakers in a small theater down the hall.
Otto and Joey V were great guys who befriended me and didn’t seem to mind all the time I spent hanging out in their office (which I did a lot of, despite Otto’s penchant for noxious-smelling cigars). I would have killed to be doing the work they were doing, and wanted to find out as much about it as I could. One of the biggest unofficial perks for me was that Otto and Joey V would let me read shooting scripts for features that were going through the lab. Another was being able to watch dailies before the filmmakers saw them. This was on the third floor where the processing and printing machines were, as well as negative cutting and assembly. There was a room with four or five high-speed projectors where Joey and Otto would view dailies fresh out of processing and printing to make sure there weren’t any technical problems. An older woman named Olga operated one of the projectors. She would often put her hand over the lens if there was any nudity in the footage, which was frustrating to the guys who had clustered in the doorway to watch. Everyone on the floor always seemed to know when such footage was about to be projected.
Having access to all of this was like having an inside track on at least part of the filmmaking process. This felt especially true when I’d catch sight of directors and actors who came in to screen dailies in the little theater down the hall. When John Huston was directing Annie (1982) I followed him out to the elevators and told him how much I loved his films. He thanked me with that voice of his and stuck out his hand for me to shake. Or when I spoke with Sidney Pollack while he waited outside the dailies theater. He was directing Tootsie (1982) at the time. I asked him how he liked the New Balance 990 running shoes he was wearing, hoping he’d think I was one of the guys instead of a nervous movie buff. The truth of it is that I was constantly amazed to be around these people and this world. I felt less intimidated approaching them in the lab than I would have on the street. It seemed somehow more legitimate.
I’d be reading shooting scripts usually months before the finished films would be released (obviously the idea of “spoilers” didn’t bother me too much). Except for the time I finished reading the script for Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) just seconds before the lights went down at a screening of that film. This had a disorienting effect, as though there was the movie on one screen and the pages of the script on a screen right beside it. I don’t recommend this approach. Angel Heart wasn’t any good, but this didn’t help.
But it was always interesting and instructive to compare the shooting scripts with what ended up on the screen. This was especially true with Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981). The screenplay by Michael Weller was one of the best I’d ever read. Besides being an excellent adaptation of the novel by E.L. Doctorow, it was a real pleasure to read just for itself. So it was quite a surprise when I finally saw Ragtime in a theater and discovered that every scene in the film was better than in the script. Milos Forman obviously made the difference. It takes a great director to improve on an already great script.
Otto lived in New Jersey and Joey on Staten Island, so they would usually give me invitations they’d received for evening screenings rather than come back to the city after having already gone home, especially since they’d been in the lab since 5:30 or 6:00 that morning to see dailies from the night before. I loved seeing films before they were released; it made me feel like I was ahead of the curve in some way that probably doesn’t really matter all that much. But there it was.
They’d also pass on invites to the wrap parties that would take place shortly after a feature had finished shooting. The wrap party for Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) was different. It was was held a month or two after the film had been released in theaters. So it wasn’t really a “wrap” party, but it was definitely a party, and promised to be fairly elaborate. It was being held in a theater with a band (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, if you remember them), dancing, food, and a large area in the lobby space with an open bar. I saw a bearded Robert De Niro standing alone at the bar, totally unobtrusive. Usually at these wrap parties it was mostly just the crew that would attend, but this one was clearly a bigger deal. Diane Keaton was there, along with Maureen Stapleton, and the great film editor Dede Allen, to name a few. But something very interesting happened when Warren Beatty showed up. It seemed to me that everyone, without being obvious about it, was totally aware that he was there. It was like the center of gravity in the room had shifted.
For a hard core film buff like myself, seeing actors and directors on a regular basis was more than a little surreal. Sometimes very surreal. Like the time I rode up in the elevator at the lab with Meryl Streep and another person. As were getting off the elevator I suddenly realized this other person was Robert De Niro. They were shooting Falling in Love (1984) at the time. It was weird, but off-screen you hardly noticed him. Or the time Paul Newman appeared in the doorway to our office and asked if he could use the phone at the desk next to mine. His call was mundane stuff, like anyone would make – dinner arrangements, something like that. When he got up to leave I pulled out my usual “I really like your work” line (and meant it). He thanked me and I added, “Especially Buffalo Bill and the Indians.” A beat after he’d left the office he stuck his head back around, gave me a thumbs up and said, “You’re in a minority.” If you’re impressed by stuff like this, which I obviously am, you remember it.
I realize I still haven’t explained the “Washroom Attendant to the Stars” part of the title for this post. The men’s restroom was just around the corner from our office. The restroom was locked and the key hanging from a hook on the wall near my desk. Anytime someone wanted to use the men’s room, they got the key from me. This was pretty straightforward, but sometimes it got a little more interactive. Liza Minnelli was in the small theater down the hall, probably watching dailies from Arthur (1981). I was startled when she burst into our office and said she needed a restroom. I told her the ladies room was further down the hall near the elevators. She said she didn’t have time and wanted to use the men’s room, which was closer. So what the hell, I went into the restroom and verified that it was empty, then stood guard outside for Liza Minnelli. Anyway, I used to joke about writing something with “Washroom Attendant to the Stars” as the title, and now I’ve done it. – Ted Hicks
(I’ve probably exceeded any acceptable quota for shameless name-dropping in this post, but I hope it’s been interesting.)