Sunday, March 23, 2014

Damme Words: Not So Quiet On The Set

Books!  Check'em out!  Remember that PSA starring the California Raisins?  Well I sure do.  They say you cannot become a reader later in life, you have to start young.  I read my fair share of comic books as a youth and of course, the obligatory literature for school but I was never a devourer of novels and non-fiction as a kid.  As an adult, I try to have my nose in something but I doubt my annual tally is very high in the double digits.  However, over the course of three days, I polished off a 300 page autobiography.  How did I get through it so fast?  Simple, the subject matter interested me and I was eager to read what happened next.  Not So Quiet On The Set:  My Life In Movies During Hollywood's Macho Era is the tale of one Robert E. Relyea, a young man who was whisked into filmmaking during the waning days of the studio system and worked his way up the ladder as a Second Assistant Director, First Assistant Director, Production Manager, Second Unit Director, Producer and Partner in production shingles over several decades.  The book was co-written by his son Craig and includes short vignettes of the boy's memories of his father's work and co-horts.

Movies from the 50's and 60's are arguably my favorite, neck and neck with flicks from the 80's.  The 50's and 60's saw leading men who were strong and took charge of their destinies as heroic, anti-heroic, swashbuckling, cynical, macho and completely captivating to watch on screen.  Many of them had rich backgrounds that included military service to world travels to rising out of poverty to performing in the circus.  All of which gave them character, magnetism and enhanced their cinematic authenticity.  Relyea worked with dozens of the biggest stars, directors, writers and producers in a time when independent productions were on the rise and the under contract payroll system of the studios was coming to an end.

Relyea's writing paints a picture of the movie industry as fast moving, exciting, unglamorous and deadly on par with military or political service.  Having worked his way up from being an unneeded Second Assistant Director on a one day shoot to traveling the world filming Second Unit to developing projects for the world's biggest movie star, Relyea seemingly has seen it all.  Not So Quiet gives us in depth, behind the scenes looks at classic movies like The Great Escape, West Side Story, Bullitt and The Magnificent Seven while providing insight on directors such as John Sturges (means what he says, no BS), William Wyler (made a woman quit acting with his barbs), Richard Brooks (wore duplicate shabby outfits to intimidate stars and crew) and Robert Wise (talented, honest and kind) and letting us know what movie stars Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and John Wayne are like to work with.  This is good reading; direct, funny, insightful and surprisingly somber at times to remind us that movies are a business as well as a personal endeavor.

Throughout the book, Relyea describes studio honchos, directors, actors, actresses and producers through his first hand encounters with them and a stated "low bullshit tolerance" view that is personally relatable.  Particularly memorable is John Wayne berating an old woman asking for an autograph then being challenged to a fight by a co-star.  Relyea worked with Charles Bronson multiple times and describes him as a party animal with a chiseled physique and not much of a sense of humor about himself.  On Kid Galahad, Bronson split his hand open and broke bones when he thought Elvis' karate trained board breaking was a farce.  Elvis, in the book, is described as extremely humble and talented who made coffee for people on set and unable to live a "normal" life.  Relyea worked with Steve McQueen throughout his career when McQueen was just a guy on a television show through becoming one of the world's biggest stars.  McQueen is remembered as moody, honest, insecure and hard working.  The two formed a partnership that yielded the hit cops and car chase film Bullitt but dissolved when racing picture Le Mans spiraled out of control and McQueen accused Relyea of betraying him.

Stallone once said if a movie shoot went well for him, the movie usually ended up terrible.  The same went for Relyea as multiple pictures he worked on had some great tragedy or death occur, usually on the first day.  The freak accident death of a stuntman on The Hallelujah Trail had Relyea vow he'd never shoot Second Unit again.  As it's billed as his life during a certain era, the book semi-abruptly ends after a story about meeting with McQueen several years after their falling out and shortly before the stars' death.  There are quick allusions to his more recent work as an Executive at Sony and we even learn that a remake of The Magnificent Seven was in the works in the mid 1990's with Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire Strikes Back, Mumford) handling writing and directing chores.  I would love to have read and learned more about Relyea's career, he's one of those guys you would happily buy a meal or a drink for just to hear stories about his work but he passed away in 2013 after living a very full life.

A terrific making of with comments from the man himself:

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