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Poor & Hungry in Los Angeles

Craig Brewer's little film hits the big time.

by chris davis

Hollywood is like a stick of chewing gum. The flavor is refreshing -- for a minute -- but once all the sweet has been sucked away, what remains is a gooey, spit-slick blob even the most befouled degenerate would be loath to touch. Nevertheless, if you are a dreamer who wants to make movies, you might as well plan on getting Hollywood stuck to your shoe for a while. There is just no avoiding it.

Craig Brewer, an industrious 28-year-old Memphian has, for the low, low price of $20,000, made a fairly remarkable film called The Poor and Hungry. Named for the P&H Cafe, the famous Midtown watering hole, the film tells the story of a reluctant car thief who falls in love with one of his victims, a delicate beauty who happens to be a cellist. Unlikely? Sure. But so brutally honest it makes you squirm, and it's painfully funny. It's a gritty Romeo and Juliet redux, beautifully told.

Of course, The Poor and Hungry is not really a film. Not exactly. Not if you are a purist and attempt to apply any strict definition of the word. It's more like a video. That is to say, it was shot on video and it was edited digitally on a computer deck. Brewer calls it a "digiflik," and on August 4th, his $20,000 digiflik was given its West Coast premiere at Paramount Studio's Studio Theater as part of the relatively new (just four years old) but increasingly prestigious Hollywood Film Festival. There it was nominated for best digital feature and best feature. It won for best digital feature, but, all things considered, even being nominated for best feature was a most impressive victory. The Poor and Hungry was the only digital production to be nominated. And it lost to a $35 million biopic about legendary screen seductress Marlene Dietrich.

The awards were not so much a retelling of David and Goliath as they were a remake of Rocky. You know the story: Apollo Creed keeps his championship but the Italian Stallion, punchy underdog that he is, steals our hearts. What follows is a diary of The Poor and Hungry's trip to Tinsel Town.

Selling To Hollywood

"Do you know how many people go to the movies versus how many people attend NASCAR events?" the woman asks. To call her a battle-ax might be an insult to all archaic implements of warfare. Her name is Pat Quinn, and she is a producer and a literary agent.

"It's two-to-one in favor of NASCAR."

Quinn sits on a panel designed to help young screenwriters sell their work to Hollywood. She has just been asked why the Hollywood film industry -- America's taste-makers -- continues to crank out mindless dreck year after year. She has answered with a bit of motorsports trivia.

When someone calls out, "Why not make good movies about NASCAR then?" Quinn replies disdainfully, "Because those people just don't go to the movies," and she receives a hearty "hear-hear" from fellow panel members. Everything has been made perfectly clear now. Hollywood makes bad films because presumably inbred NASCAR fans never go to the movies.

Throughout the morning the panel has preached: "You play by Hollywood's rules, or you don't get in the game." If you are going to make an independent film, it had better have some star power behind it. You need a respected producer in your corner, or a name-brand actor, an award-winning writer at the very least. These are called your "attachments," and they are an absolute must.

If there is any truth to all this, The Poor and Hungry is a lost cause. Craig Brewer wrote it, directed it, edited it; he even did all the camera work while his partner Seth Hagee held the boom. None of the actors are famous. For that matter, many had never even acted before. But Brewer sits quietly taking notes, seemingly unfazed. Beside him, Lindsey Roberts, his leading actress, sits, arms crossed, looking very serious and businesslike. She's nobody's "attachment" now, but on her first day in town she had a by-request audition with Linda Phillips Palo, Francis Ford Coppola's casting director, so that could all change. It's only a matter of hours before Hollywood gets its first taste of The Poor and Hungry, and in spite of what Craig and Lindsey have just been told you can almost smell the confidence these two exude.

When the panel discussion ends, everyone rushes the stage. They have more questions to ask and ideas to pitch the experts. An impossibly petite woman dressed as Charlie Chaplin remains in character and does not speak as she waves a handful of papers in Quinn's face. Craig and Lindsey walk among the crowd handing out free passes to the show.

Hanging With Gino and Marty

Paramount Studios has the feel of a college campus. Several large beige buildings, more functional than fancy, are connected by a series of sidewalks and plazas. There is much coming and going. People sit on park benches reading screenplays. Tourists snap pictures of unknown execs as they whiz by on golf carts. Hey, they could be famous, right?

We are here to pay a visit to Gino Campagnola, Paramount's vice president in charge of technology. Not just anyone can walk into Mr. Campagnola's well-appointed corner office, resplendent with framed posters from The Godfather and photographs of classic cars. He is an extremely important and powerful person whose interest in the future of digital film led him to make an appointment with Craig. After their first meeting, Campagnola, much to the young director's delight and surprise, accepted a copy of The Poor and Hungry. Unfortunately, as Craig only recently discovered, that particular copy had no sound recorded on it. He has come to replace it with one that does.

After a brief wait in his secretary's office, Campagnola warmly invites us to his inner-sanctum, offering a gleaming smile and firm handshake. Beneath an organized mess of blinding white hair, he is the very picture of California cool in his shirtsleeves and khaki Dockers. He's tanned and paunchy. His voice is gruff, and he barely speaks above a whisper. He takes the new video enthusiastically and commences to tell us stories.

"I saw you shot some scenes by the Daisy Theater on Beale Street," he begins brightly, explaining how as a younger man working in distribution he visited the Memphis theater frequently. He talks about Memphis' old producers' row, a stretch of South Front near Beale where several major film studios (Paramount included) once kept offices. "Every time you went to producers' row you would have to go out drinking. All the people who worked there wanted to take you out to get you drunk," he declares, becoming louder and more animated. After the reminiscences, however, the talk turns to the topic of digital film.

"It's the future," Campagnola says tersely, as if someone had thrown down a gauntlet. "It is inevitable. It will save the industry a billion dollars a year. The problem is that theater owners have spent so much money expanding and adding new screens they don't want to spend more money to retrofit their theaters with the new digital equipment. And you have to realize, they can buy a good film projector for $20,000 or $30,000 that will last them forever." He shrugs, seeming neither particularly concerned or challenged by the dilemma, and reasserts, "It's inevitable."

Grinning slyly, he calls us over to his desk and opens his briefcase. A small, gray felt bag is chained to a leather loop inside. Gently opening the bag he removes what appears to be a mirror in a tiny golden frame. "That's not a mirror," Campagnola quickly points out, as if he could read our minds. "It's 1.2 million mirrors. Little mirrors. That is the future of digital, and I never let it get too far away from me." He looks down on all the "little mirrors" like a proud papa. The chip he is showing us was specifically engineered for projecting the color red, one of the most difficult colors to get right digitally. Campagnola admits that it's still not perfect, "but the average Joe on the street can't tell the difference."

We leave the vice president's office energized and walk a hundred or so yards to Mandalay Pictures to meet with Craig's friend Marty. "You know," Craig says, as we wander past the palm trees, his eyes filling up with stars, "when I was out in the heat and mosquitoes shooting my movie, I never thought I would be here. A vice president at Paramount actually took the time to watch my movie. It didn't even have sound, but he watched my movie anyway. He's a very busy man."

Marty, a tall dark-haired man in his late 20s, is working with a script for Marlon Brando and Edward Norton. With the energy of an 8-year-old Marty juices up the golf cart in front of Mandalay and urges us to hop on. "I think they are shooting Star Trek Voyager today," he says. "I want you guys to see this because there is nothing funnier than when the aliens go on break. They stand around concessions in all of their alien makeup trying to figure out what they want to eat."

We zip across the lot, past sets that look like old New York; past sets that look like new New York; past grunts pushing carts full of painted flats. We are looking for pretty girls and hungry aliens. A tourist snaps our picture. After all, one of us might be famous.

Rituals and Wardrobe

Lindsey Roberts is wearing a pink bikini top and bouncing off of the walls of Craig's hotel room. She needs help deciding what to wear to the premiere but none is offered.

"I'm not getting dressed up at all," Craig says, dialing the telephone, making sure that everyone has planned to arrive at the premiere early. The cast and crew have passed out thousands of handbills and free passes, though the tiny Studio Theater has a capacity of around 300. Despite their efforts, nobody involved with the festival seems to think there is a chance that the show will sell out. Marty from Manderley Pictures went so far as to say, "If you can fill that theater, Craig Brewer, then there is a job for you in Hollywood."

The hotel room seems to shrink amid the hair brushing, tooth brushing, lint brushing, shirt buttoning, drink pouring, and occasional raucous laughter. Various cast members wander in and out. John Still, the rough-talking actor who plays a rougher-talking car thief in the film, enters with a bang, eyes bugged out and talking a mile a minute.

"Guess who I saw today while I was driving? Heather Locklear! Boy, I thought really hard about just running into her car just so she would have to stop and exchange information with me." He thinks it's the funniest thing in the world.

Lindsey enters again, wearing a simple black dress.

"I like that," Craig says to her, the phone clutched between his ear and his shoulder. "But let's see the other outfit."

"Yeah," John repeats, "I should have given her a little bump." Lindsey returns in tight black slacks and some kind of scarf that wraps around her chest and ties in the back.

"Wear the dress," Craig says.

"The dress?"

"Yeah, the dress." She bounces off breathlessly. Craig mumbles, "I'm still directing. Director, fashion consultant, mother, you name it that's me." More drinks are poured and things calm down. Craig asks everyone in the room to gather around for a little ritual. Reaching into what looks like a roll of white tube socks he removes a gold watch and pen. He pulls the watch over his wrist and puts the pen in his breast pocket. "These were my father's," he says solemnly. "He was wearing them when he died."

Wanda Wilson Makes an Entrance

Chris Ellis is one of the first people to arrive at the theater. He was one of Memphis' most colorful actors until he left us for the Left Coast and prominent roles in films like My Cousin Vinny and Apollo 13. He looks like he hasn't shaved in days, and in his Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and blue socks he could easily pass for a lunatic. (Those who remember the days when Chris used to sling beers at the P&H might very well ask: "What do you mean by 'could pass? '")

"Is Wanda here?" he asks nervously. Upon hearing that she is not he breathes a sigh of relief. "Whew, that's good, I've got to go drain the fiend."

One by one former Memphians, mostly actors, arrive. One by one they ask for Wanda. They want to see the wonderful woman with the big blond wig and giant earrings, the husky-voiced proprietress of the P&H Café who always treated them better than their own mothers ever could. For Memphis actors the P&H is a touchstone and a refuge, and Wanda Wilson, who so many people have come to see tonight, is its crowning jewel.

She arrives in a black gown sewn all around with tiny gold coins. "A drag queen gimme this dress, darlin'," she proudly announces. She is Memphis' own glamour-girl, and even in a city accustomed to seeing stars, she can turn heads.

As 9 p.m. approaches the crowd swells. "I hope everybody has a seat," Craig says. "It looks like a sellout." There is obviously a job for him in Hollywood.

Action

Before the movie starts Craig awkwardly addresses the audience, all but apologizing for his film. He stutters and nervously stumbles over his words. His head is bowed, and he shifts his weight from side to side.

"I want to thank my father, Walter Brewer," he says. "I wish he could be here tonight." Upon mentioning his father Craig's mood lightens just a bit. He tells the SRO crowd how when he was broke and struggling to make his first feature his father said, "Why don't you just forget about it, get a good camera, and shoot the whole thing on video?" He then adds that shortly thereafter his father passed away, and that with the inheritance left to him he did exactly that. The lights go down. The film starts. The audience is enraptured.

The After-Party

The makeshift bar is set up in the street right outside the theater, and the lone bartender is a blur of perpetual motion. The crowd seems to have expanded and it is difficult to move. Lindsey Roberts flits from group to group handing out headshots and resumes. Within the hour everyone seems to be holding an 8x10 glossy of her pixie-ish face.

Only a few short weeks ago Lindsey's plans were set. She was majoring in history. She planned to specialize in Holocaust studies and to take her doctorate. She wanted to teach. From the looks of all the pretty pictures her plans have changed.

Eric Tate, The Poor and Hungry's burly, bearded lead actor, turns up beer after beer. "A lot of people think I'm squandering this opportunity," he says, "because I'm not working it like Lindsey. But that's just not what I want to do. I don't want to move to Hollywood. Not now anyway." He does want to keep making films; he just wants to make them in Memphis.

John Still chats with Lindsey's parents. Keenon Nikita, Tate's on-screen partner in crime, is flirting with every girl who'll stand still long enough to let him. Wanda practically has her own receiving line. The crowd refuses to thin. From out of the throng ring words like "brilliant," "beautiful," "heartbreaking," and "genius." The night feels like it will never end.

And then it does.

Hangovers, Nicolas Cage, and The Buzz

The premiere has taken its toll, or more accurately the after-party, with its gallons of free beer and not-so-cheap red wine, followed by a greasy 2 a.m. breakfast. The first round of conferences -- ironically, the ones addressing the future of digital film -- were blown off, slept through, and generally ignored. The issue at hand is how to soak up the poison in everyone's system. Namely, lunch, and where to get it.

"There's Roscoe's Chicken and Waffle," Craig announces bouncing up and down behind the wheel of his rented Saturn. It is the first enthusiastic pronouncement of the hot, bleary-eyed day. "That's an L.A. institution," he continues. "When you are in Memphis you go to the Rendezvous, and when you are in L.A. you go to Roscoe's. It's in that Jackie Chan film." After a heated debate, Roscoe's Chicken and Waffle is voted down.

A brand-new canary-yellow Ferrari pulls up alongside of us.

"Nicolas Cage," someone shouts. Every head swivels to see that the scruffy skin-and-bones pushing the pedal of that glistening sports car is none other than Hollywood's original quirky hunk. Without so much as a look in our general direction, Cage squeals ahead and is gone in something less than 60 seconds. The aspirin and B.C. Powder begin to kick in. Heads clear and Craig makes an executive decision.

We head toward the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to link up with the rest of the group before having lunch. "I don't feel so bad about missing the conferences this morning," Craig lies as we turn into the parking lot. His eyes are moist and puffy. There are still pillow lines on his face, and his words are accompanied by a subtle, telling twitch. "Actually, I do feel bad about missing them, but mostly I want to hear the buzz."

Ah, yes, the buzz. It's the most addictive vice on the West Coast. The biz feeds on buzz, not on fried chicken, Chai tea, or sushi. To hear the coke-nosed Hollywood hypesters pitch it, good buzz is better than great sex with a pair of supermodels. Craig did have an SRO premiere the night before. Surely we could all catch a little buzz before lunch.

The lobby of the hotel is in fact brimming with buzz, and to Craig's delight, much of it concerns him and his "little" film. People make puppy-dog faces as he passes, lightly touch his arm, and ask, "Aren't you Craig Brewer? Didn't you direct that film The Poor and Hungry?" They speak in a strange, garbled code, blathering, "Well, I really didn't see it, but I feel good heat coming off of this picture." Or, "Of course I couldn't make the screening but this has such a good vibe." And so on.

The movie industry must be the most metaphysically obsessed business in the world, and the importance of these ill-defined invisibles, "heat" and "vibe," can never be underestimated. The buzz is a musky minx and these items comprise her sticky nether-parts. They stimulate the hypothalamus, increase saliva flow, and imbue even an unseen film with all the juicy succulence of a perfectly rare steak.

A broad-shouldered woman in her mid-20s -- bobbed and blond -- in sensibly utilitarian attire, approaches. Her name is Mandy. She takes Craig's hand and says forthrightly, "Your film ROCKED! When you are famous next year I'm going to tell everybody that I met you." Craig blushes, bowing before her earnest compliment.

The Zoo Story/I Believe in America

We are seated in a shoddy, impossibly small theater somewhere in the less-than-glamorous belly of Los Angeles. Thirty stackable plastic lawn chairs have been crammed onto ramshackle platforms. The miniature stage, also ramshackle, is almost completely filled by a lone green bench. Spare track lighting casts weak shadows everywhere, adding to the overall tawdriness. Patrons nibble on pepperjack and Wheat Thins, sipping Coors Light and cheap white wine. They are waiting for the lights to go down in the theater and for Edward Albee's savage one act The Zoo Story to begin.

Eric Tate nasally intones the opening lines of The Godfather. "I believe in America." His quiet tenor voice and thick Memphis drawl immediately attract the attention of those seated nearby. He smiles, displaying two missing teeth. He tugs on the end of his bushy, dirty-blond beard, tosses his head back and cackles. Craig grins sheepishly at him.

"That's where it came from," Craig says, showing a bit of embarrassment. "That's where I got the idea for the opening line for The Poor and Hungry. All of my favorite films have an incredible first line," he says. "I didn't have one. So, when I finally came up with the line -- 'Most of the time ... the parts are worth more than the whole thing' -- I had Eric record a voiceover. When he says it, the screen is totally black, just like the beginning of The Godfather."

All day long people have been asking Craig questions about language. They want to know how he wrote his dialogue. Some have even asked, "Do you really hang out with strippers and drug dealers?" But nothing has gotten more attention than his opening line. It's quoted in the festival's program. It's printed in the liner notes of the film's soundtrack. It's on everyone's lips. "Most of the time ... the parts are worth more than the whole thing."

Before the Gala

The paparazzi are lined up five deep behind a velvet rope in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hilton, where the awards are to take place. Sally Kellerman, the original Hotlips in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H*, flits about in front of the cameras tossing her ruddy blond hair, laughing and chatting with everyone who passes. One has the strong sense that someone told her this would be a good idea. John Travolta causes a ruckus as he strolls slowly and confidently onto the scene. Cameras strobe and reporters clamor for a word with the blue-eyed comeback kid who, though older, in certain light still looks Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back, Kotter. In a less flattering light he looks like a puffy lizard.

Wilson Roberts, Lindsey Roberts' father, has been drinking. He's worried about his little girl. He never imagined he would be standing in front of the cameras at the Beverly Hills Hilton, surrounded by movie stars. He claims not to be impressed. "They put their pants on just like I do," he says with faltering bravado. And who can blame him for being worried? These are, after all, the people the media constantly warn us of, the kind of people who'll chew you up and spit you out. "She doesn't have any training," he mumbles, sipping whiskey from a Styrofoam cup that is at odds with his black tuxedo. Before anyone knows what is happening he has cornered James Woods. He's looking for assurance wherever he can find it.

"I've heard you didn't have any training," Wilson says to Woods. "And my daughter, well " He explains the situation. He wobbles on his feet and his voice trembles. His concern is deep, and as apparent as his condition. The notoriously temperamental actor smiles and responds to Wilson's needs with unexpected compassion.

"You don't need training," he assures, giving Wilson's shoulder a playful, almost affectionate punch. "Sometimes an untrained actor can give a much purer performance on film." The two separate and Wilson repeats Woods' advice. He certainly wants to believe it.

Dinner is served: tasteless chicken and green beans. Later in the evening James Woods will refer to it as "muskrat."

Wanda's hands are freezing, and she can't get them warm. "I'm nervous as a whore in church," she whispers. Several people nod and raise their glasses in agreement.

When The Poor and Hungry is named among the nominees for best feature a roar of applause goes up, the loudest ovation given to a film all night. When Marlene is announced as the winner, the response is a relative whimper. A wave of disappointment falls over the table. Even when The Poor and Hungry is named best digital feature and Craig rushes up to the same stage where Morgan Freeman, Russell Crowe, and Richard Dreyfuss stood, the disappointment remains. There is but a moment of intense jubilation followed by grumbles of "we should have won both." Only Craig Brewer seems genuinely blissful.

How Not to Paint a Town

"So we are going to a diner? Is that it?" Eric Tate asks, less than politely. "I can go to a diner back home in Memphis." A handful of bars are suggested, but bars in L.A. shut down around 1 a.m. and as that hour is at hand the group decides to stay in the hotel room. Several bottles of booze and mixers are ordered from the Pink Dot, a convenience store on Sunset about three blocks from the hotel.

"I wish my father was here," Craig says, unable to take his mind off business. "He would know what to do." Two top-notch entertainment lawyers are competing to represent him, and he's afraid of making the wrong decision. "All I really wanted out of this experience was to get representation, and I want to do the right thing."

Wilson Roberts wanders about on the balcony, tossing small objects -- bottlecaps and towels -- to the ground below. Silhouetted by the lights of the sprawling metropolis he mumbles, "I ain't hurtin' nobody." When conversation inside reaches a lull you can hear the faint click of something new striking the concrete seven stories below.

"I'm just glad that we won," Craig says at length. He looks like he has just taken a punch. His jaw falls slack with exhaustion. His eyes roll up and widen with something not unlike terror. "I'm just glad that it's over."

Silence blankets the room like L.A. smog as the absurdity of his comment settles and sinks in. There is laughter. Real joyous laughter. Everyone eyes his golden trophy, which now rests on the bedside table amid empty beer bottles and Pringles cans. In the hallway a cell phone rings unanswered.

Were this the closing shot of a feature film the camera would pull back, beyond the balcony, above the street where Wilson's presumably harmless tokens continue to fall. It would pause momentarily, framing the disheveled young men in the dim light behind their sliding glass doors. It would pull back farther and farther, until the light from their window became indistinguishable from the millions of other lights of Los Angeles. The music would swell and the credits would roll.

You can e-mail Chris Davis at davis@memphisflyer.com.


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