MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: When I lived in Boston, I enjoyed reading Nat Segaloff’s movie reviews and comments in the Boston Herald. They apparently impressed me enough that when I saw his name on Facebook a few years ago, I remembered him instantly and friended him.
Nat began as a movie publicist based in Boston, a career that carried him to New York, then back to Boston to be a film journalist covering the business of film. He also began doing radio (WEEI-FM, WMEX) and TV (WBZ, WSBK) before moving to Los Angeles to make documentaries (“Biography,” etc.) and other gambits mentioned in his new book
The book is full of interesting and funny stories about the movies, celebrities, and life in the entertainment industry. He discusses meeting Woody Allen in an elevator, being Saruman’s bagman, and forging Jesus’ signature on a publicity photo, among other things. It’s just full of wonderful anecdotes.
The book is called SCREEN SAVER: PRIVATE STORIES OF PUBLIC HOLLYWOOD and it’s from BearManor Press (who will be publishing my book about the Monkees in 2017).
Nat, what compelled you to write this book?
NAT SEGALOFF: Thank you for not calling it a memoir. It’s a collection of the show business stories I’ve been telling at parties and when I taught college classes — and some that I dared not tell while certain people were alive – since I entered the business. I figure I’d better set them down now before my brain defragged.
VENTRELLA: You’ve met some interesting people over the years – who impressed you the most?
SEGALOFF: Everybody in show business is impressive or else they’d be in a less exciting profession. Those whose company I remember most fondly include Michael Caine, Dom DeLuise, Martin Sheen, Louise Fletcher, William Friedkin, Arthur Penn, and one or two others. What made them impressive to me was how approachable they were/are. In many cases we became friends.
VENTRELLA: Some of the actors and directors you’ve met have very public personalities that are not at all like their real, private faces. Who seemed the most different to you?
SEGALOFF: I found James Earl Jones to be very much an introvert (this was before he went to the Dark Side) and Christopher Lee to be enormously chatty. The one who stunned me the most was Max von Sydow. When I interviewed him on WEEI-FM he wound up singing Swedish drinking songs. (Gee, I wish I’d put that in the book.)
VENTRELLA: Given the work you’ve done with so many of the Star Trek cast, have you found yourself revisiting the old shows? Got an opinion on the various series or movies?
SEGALOFF: Starting the science fiction production company Alien Voices with John de Lancie and Leonard Nimoy made me an instant Trekker. I am told that I should revere TOS, but I prefer ST:TNG. I don’t re-watch any of the shows. As for the movies, isn’t the formula “Odd numbers bad, even numbers good”?
VENTRELLA: When you first began, the studios tried to make original films – there wasn’t this remake and sequel ideology. What happened? The film industry “lost its nerve” as you say?
SEGALOFF: I was fortunate to have come of age in the film business at a time when the film business itself was coming of age. The mid-1970s were a transitional period for American cinema. The crumbling of the restrictive Production Code gave movies a new freedom, the ready availability of cheap filmmaking equipment meant that every kid was making his own pictures, and the film companies had become so shaky financially and out of touch with the public that they embraced the youth culture as a way to attract a new audience. It lasted roughly from Easy Rider in 1969 to Jaws in 1975. After that the blockbuster mentality took over and the film companies embraced Roger Price’s definition of the mass production culture, “If everybody doesn’t want it, then nobody can have it.”.
VENTRELLA: You discuss how movies were once allowed to find their audiences by opening at a small number of theaters at first and then expanding their number of screens if they found favor with the public. Do you think the goal of making only huge blockbusters has hurt the industry?
SEGALOFF: Blockbusters have already killed the American film industry, it just doesn’t know enough to lie down. They cost so much to make and market that they must be tooled for as wide an audience as possible, which means that they cannot challenge or offend anybody (banality is apparently not considered offensive). This is what killed network television. But even disregarding the aesthetic content, the business model itself is suicidal. A $200 million movie simply cannot make its costs back unless everybody goes to see it. The huge grosses we see reported don’t reflect the money that gets sapped along the way by advertising, exhibitors, gross deals (money off the top), distribution costs, interest, and overhead. What these blockbusters are is cash flow machines, not profit-makers. If the film companies had to exist on profits alone they would collapse. This is Hollywood’s dirty secret.
VENTRELLA: I wonder sometimes if people just have nostalgia for the old days, remembering all the great films and bemoaning the current state, but it seems to me that there were plenty of crappy films being released when I was younger, too … do you agree or has the quality really fallen?
SEGALOFF: The percentage of dross versus gold is probably the same now as it was twenty or thirty years ago; (Theodore) Sturgeon’s law says that 90 percent of anything is crap. The difference is that in 1976 a crappy film cost $1 million to make and $50,000 to advertise while in 2016 it costs $200 to make and $60 million to sell. Films back then were usually about something new. Now they’re about something old. Of course, I’m sweepingly generalizing.
VENTRELLA: Brian DePalma once advised you to review the film he made and not the film you wanted to see. How did you apply that to your reviews?
SEGALOFF: If the filmmaker sets out his or her goals in the early part of the film it’s a bargain made with the audience. Good filmmakers keep their end of the bargain.
VENTRELLA: Which film critics do you most admire?
SEGALOFF: I admire them all. (Do you think I have the word “stupid” written across my forehead?)
VENTRELLA: What happened to film critics, anyway? As you point out, now we just have “reviewers.”
SEGALOFF: Film critics have always been a liability, but every now and then they served a purpose (publicity, ego, targets). They are the only writer in the popular media who is expected to criticize an advertiser’s product. True critics presume that their audience has seen the film and is reading the review for insight. The job of a reviewer, however, is as a consumer reporter who describes a film not according to its place in the art of cinema but whether it’ll be a good time at the movies. Ironically, the advertising rates for movies are among the highest charged by a newspaper, magazine, or broadcaster. Yet the trend now is to get rid of film critics entirely – and even arts coverage – because publishers consider it to be free advertising. These people are called Philistines. It’s also because the communications conglomerates have become so vertically integrated that critics are superfluous.
VENTRELLA: You sort of fell into this business, didn’t you? This wasn’t originally your plan?
SEGALOFF: Like half the kids in my generation I wanted to make movies. I quickly discovered that if you want to make movies you have to run a gauntlet of people who don’t want you to. I wasn’t good at it. John Houseman put it best: “In the old days they used to help a producer make a movie. Now they dare him.” (That’s in the book.)
VENTRELLA: One thing you emphasize is that the “story is more important than the person telling it.” Do you think that is the flaw in many movies today? And does that transfer to novels?
SEGALOFF: I was referring strictly to myself. I’m not famous but the people I write about in SCREEN SAVER are, so I make the stories about them but from my point of view. It’s not so much about me as about them.
VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to name some people in the book and not others?
SEGALOFF: You’re the lawyer; you’re familiar with the term defamation.
VENTRELLA: Well, if it’s true, it’s not defamation … Anyway, one of the false myths you discuss is “Movies about movies don’t make money.” Hollywood loves making movies about itself, and they often win Oscars. So where do these myths come from? And do they really believe them?
SEGALOFF: Every pitch meeting starts out at “No” and works toward “Maybe.” Pitching a Hollywood story starts off with “are you out of your &%#@!ing mind?” and if you’re lucky you get to “No.” There’s a more sinister reason that goes back to the early days when the (mostly) Jewish moguls who founded Hollywood stayed away from Jewish subjects because they didn’t want to call attention to themselves in an intolerant country. The nix on movies about movies may feed off of that.
VENTRELLA: You complain about the decline of journalistic ethics – don’t you think Rupert Murdoch had something to do with that?
SEGALOFF: Murdoch simply took advantage of a system that was already on the skids thanks to a breakdown of enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Reagan FCC’s abdication of its responsibilities to the public, and the fact that he is a brilliant businessman. As to ethics, to pull a quote from Jean Anouilh’s Becket (although it might be from Edward Anhalt’s screenplay): “I enjoy good living; good living is Norman. I enjoy life and a Saxon’s only birthright is slaughter. One collaborates to live.”
VENTRELLA: A bit of your book talks about charity, pointing out that some of the clichés about Hollywood are not true. Why do you think that was important to put into the book?
SEGALOFF: I have written and called my share of charity fundraisers and I see the parade of stars, musicians, and others who show up, do their thing, and ask not one cent for lending their name, time, and talent to a good cause. Then you read in the tabloids about how demanding, selfish, and trashy Hollywood types are. I challenge any other industry to compare itself with Hollywood’s service to the community.
VENTRELLA: How did you decide on the title SCREEN SAVER?
SEGALOFF: Because “Harry Potter and the Prick Who Gave My Book a Bad Review” was taken.
VENTRELLA: How did you find your current publisher?
SEGALOFF: This is my fourth book for Bear Manor Media. I was referred to them by film historian and prolific author James Robert Parish and I have found a home. Plus the publisher says he likes my writing. (My previous Bear Manor book, BTW, are FINAL CUTS: THE LAST FILMS OF 50 GREAT DIRECTORS, STIRLING SILLIPHANT: THE FINGERS OF GOD, and MR. HUSTON/MR. NORTH: LIFE, DEATH AND MAKING JOHN HUSTON’S LAST MOVIE.)
VENTRELLA: Which has been the most successful?
SEGALOFF: Serious film books are not a money tree. My most successful book is probably the first edition of THE EVERYTHING® ETIQUETTE BOOK that I wrote in 1997 for Adams Media Corp. God knows how many printings they had. You may ask how a film historian got asked to write a book on etiquette. I had a fine agent and a wonderful editor. Plus I wanted to be able to say that I wrote the book on good taste.
VENTRELLA: Which did you enjoy writing the most?
SEGALOFF: I enjoy writing all of them, but the one that I couldn’t believe I was writing while I was writing it was ARTHUR PENN: AMERICAN DIRECTOR (University Press of Kentucky, 2011). Can you imagine how it felt being able to sit at the feet of the man who made Bonnie and Clyde – the film that made me want to make movies – and ask him any question, not just about film, but about life?
VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Harlan Ellison book!
SEGALOFF: It was after he read my Arthur Penn book that Harlan (whom I had known since I directed my Stan Lee documentary) asked me if I would be interested in writing his. He barely finished the question when I said Yes. It’s due out later this year from NESFA Press – the New England Science Fiction Association – and will be a very different book than people are expecting. Everyone who knows Harlan Ellison knows that he is combative, precise, relentless, and brilliant. My book probes the roots of those traits and led both of us into highly personal areas that reveal him as few have ever seen. We’re calling it A LIT FUSE: THE PROVOCATIVE LIFE OF HARLAN ELLISON, AN EXPLORATION BY NAT SEGALOFF. Note that it doesn’t have the word biography in the title. I don’t know what kind of book it is. Yes I do. It’s Harlan.
Thank you for the opportunity to mouth off like this about SCREEN SAVER and my other thoughts. I hope people buy the book, if not for themselves then to give to someone they love by way of dissuading them from going into the film business.
Filed under: writing | Tagged: A LIT FUSE: THE PROVOCATIVE LIFE OF HARLAN ELLISON, AN EXPLORATION BY NAT SEGALOFF., ARTHUR PENN: AMERICAN DIRECTOR, DEATH AND MAKING JOHN HUSTON'S LAST MOVIE, film criticism, FINAL CUTS: THE LAST FILMS OF 50 GREAT DIRECTORS, MR. HUSTON/MR. NORTH: LIFE, Nat Segaloff, SCREEN SAVER: PRIVATE STORIES OF PUBLIC HOLLYWOOD, Star Trek, STIRLING SILLIPHANT: THE FINGERS OF GOD | 1 Comment »