Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Telling Lies in America"

Shot in Cleveland, set in Cleveland, based on the Cleveland childhood of writer Joe Eszterhas. It premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival in 1997. Not a great movie, although it has some good things, including Kevin Bacon's lead performance as a popular local DJ. (The cast also includes the late Brad Renfro, and Calista Flockhart before "Ally McBeal.") Some tales about the making of the period film, after the jump.

As "Telling Lies" was premiering in Cleveland, Eszterhas announced that his next film, "Male Pattern Baldness," would also be shot in the area in early 1998; he later said that he wanted Drew Carey to star. But the film didn't get made. In a 2004 interview with Nathan Rabin of A.V. Club, Eszterhas said this:

Male Pattern Baldness was about a guy who lives in the Midwest and works in a steel plant, who finds himself in a battle with all the precepts of political correctness. He's just an ordinary guy who goes up against all the sort of politically inspired and enforced social rules that we've looked at in the past 20 years. Everything goes to hell for him. He loses his wife as a result. He loses his son, and he has to take anger-management classes. Ultimately, he can't take it. The tone of the piece until now is comedic, it's dark, and it has a really striking comedic tone, to the point where Betty Thomas, who directs comedies, after reading it decided that she was going to make it. Suddenly, near the end of this piece, the comedic tone startlingly ends and he goes on a rampage and kills four or five of his workers and kills himself. The movie ends with an epilogue of irony. Betty's take and the studio's take when I sold the script was that it was very hard-hitting, and was certainly going to be very controversial. It proved to be so controversial, finally, in the studio's view, and also Betty's–she felt that it was an assault on political correctness–that they opted not to do the picture, and it's still up on the shelf. I do think that it would have startled some people, and I think it would have made us take a hard look at the effects of political correctness.

Here's an Aug. 31, 1996, Akron Beacon Journal story by Mary Ethridge about the production:

Cleveland may be the renaissance city of the '90s, with its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame masterpiece and a razzle-dazzle baseball team.
But you can't rearrange its soul.
Cleveland is still a place where joy is a Friday paycheck, a cold can of Bud and a jacked-up Chevy.
It was that utterable but intangible quality that creators of the movie Telling Lies in America were seeking when they ventured from Hollywood to the heartland to film.
Now, as they wrap up shooting in the city today, they're sure they found it.
Mary Kay Stone, a set decorator, said she didn't have to do much to re-create 1961 Cleveland, which is when and where the movie is set.
"We just stripped away some modern stuff and there it was," said Stone, who is also prop mistress at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. "We were able to go back 35 years without much trouble at all."
Stone scoured Cleveland-area thrift shops for period items and found them in abundance. A chenille bedspread. Old Ladies Home Journals. A vintage tea kettle. A bottle of Johnson's Baby Oil, unopened, from 1959.
"We did a lot of shopping at the Goodwills around here," she said. "We found just about everything we needed."
Stone said this as she was hanging a T-shirt and towel from circa 1960 on a line in the back yard of a duplex on West 14th Street in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland.
It was the site of a scene shot this week in the yard at the home of the main character's girlfriend.
The semiautobiographical film by controversial screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) stars 14-year-old Brad Renfro (The Client) as an immigrant boy who befriends a Cleveland disc jockey (played by Kevin Bacon) during radio's payola scandals.
A significant part of the film centers on the boy's relationship with his father, played by Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg).
Eszterhas grew up in Cleveland and insisted on using local talent on screen and off.
Several Northeast Ohio actors were cast, including Akron's Matt Miller as the assistant district attorney prosecuting the payola case. Dozens of other locals were extras.
Across the street from the set on West 14th, neighbors sat on their front porches and watched. Onlookers wandered by freely. Actors' trailers and catering trucks lined the road. Traffic roared by, directed by a Cuyahoga County sheriff's deputy.
"It's been exciting. It hasn't been an inconvenience at all," said West 14th resident Christine Nagle. "The producers, the cast -- everyone has been so polite and caring. Mr. Schell even posed for pictures with us."
The street was shut down only for a few minutes at a time when outside scenes were being shot, Nagle said.
A group of vintage car owners from Brooklyn sat in lawn chairs on the set. Their cars -- a 1959 Cadillac, a 1954 Chevy and a 1958 Pontiac -- were being used in filming that day.
An assistant director -- wearing black lipstick and a spiky hairdo -- chatted with one of the car owners about their mutual love of needlepoint.
"It's all very relaxed," said Matt Jennings of Springfield Township, who is working as a grip -- basically, a stagehand -- on the movie. Jennings, a member of the local Studio Mechanics Union, was hired in July to construct and maintain the sets.
"We've been working 14-hour days. Last night, I found myself on I-77 at 2 a.m.," Jennings said. "But I wouldn't trade the experience."
John Haight is a retired debate teacher from Berea High School. He was hired because the law requires that actors under 18 be supervised by a certified teacher.
"I listen to Brad (Renfro) work and make sure he doesn't slip out of dialogue," Haight said. "I'm just here if he needs me."
Haight said an actor and teacher friend in Westlake told him about the job.
Bill Miller, a North Olmsted bus driver, got the job of driving a restored 1959 passenger bus up from Orrville, where it is kept by the Ohio Museum of Transportation.
"They called us out of the blue and we had just the bus for them. It's a piece of history," Miller said. "I can't wait to see the movie. We're a real part of it

And here's an Aug. 27, 1996, interview with Joe Eszterhas for the Beacon Journal, by Mark Dawidziak:

The glowing cigarette seems impossibly small in his beefy hand. The glittering gold ring he wears seems impossibly large.
Glancing at the world through squinting eyes, this bigger-than-life Hollywood writer draws deeply on the cigarette and exhales slowly. The smoke swirls around Joe Eszterhas' waves of golden hair in the same way that controversy swirls around his career.
Eszterhas has come home to make a simple movie about growing up in Cleveland. Telling Lies in America, which completes filming in Northeast Ohio on Sunday, is a semi-autobiographical story that the writer has carried around in his heart for more than 12 years.
There are no brazenly explicit love scenes, no ice-pick murders, no psycho-sexual mysteries. This is a considerably kinder, gentler project than the films that have made Eszterhas Hollywood's leading pusher of the envelope: Basic Instinct, Sliver, Showgirls, Jade.
Yet there's no avoiding the C-word. The producers of Telling Lies in America introduced the film's author as "the controversial Joe Eszterhas."
Press releases about the movie contain the standard reference to "the controversial Eszterhas," even though calling the writer controversial is like describing Dennis Rodman as eccentric, Rush Limbaugh as opinionated or Donald Trump as wealthy. It's taken for granted.
"No, I don't mind being called controversial," Eszterhas said during a break from filming in Cleveland, where the modestly budgeted Telling Lies in America has been shooting since Aug. 3. "I am that person, clearly.
"I like writing movies that push the envelope. I like the notion of doing movies that push past certain boundaries. I do take some pride in that because, for better or worse, I don't think I do that kind of usual Hollywood pap."
He proudly embraces the label. He doesn't disown his more notorious films.
But he does want people to know there's more to this writer than Basic Instinct and Showgirls. He doesn't want critics to be surprised that he's trying a Telling Lies in America.
"Look, I've done 14 movies," Eszterhas said, "and I didn't have any nudity in my movies until the ninth one. And I did things as diverse as F.I.S.T (a 1975 union story with Sylvester Stallone, partly shot in Cleveland) and The Music Box (a 1989 courtroom drama with Jessica Lange as a lawyer whose father is accused of war crimes) and Checking Out (a 1989 black comedy with Jeff Daniels).
"I think one of the things that's unfair is that I've become pigeonholed as doing only erotic thrillers. I have done those, and I will probably do them again. But I think my range is broader.
"I think what's fair is to judge a screenwriter like a novelist, on his body of work. I'd like to be judged on that instead of just the erotic thrillers."
If you judged on appearances, you wouldn't cast the burly, bearded Eszterhas as a writer. A Hollywood casting director might select him to play the leader of a biker gang, a Viking warrior or a WWF wrestler.
Beneath the gruff appearance and behind the controversy, though, is a soft-spoken realist who knows that tough questions go with the Tinseltown territory. Having arrived in his early 50s with gray touches accenting those flowing golden locks, Eszterhas has learned to keep such impostors as success, failure and Hollywood in perspective.
Showgirls, for instance, wasn't just the most roundly mocked movie of 1995. It was a film flop that moved swiftly from cultural outrage to self-satire.
Indeed, it has become a midnight-movie cult favorite. Audiences gather to hoot and holler at the wooden acting, insipid dialogue and calcified direction. Is Eszterhas aware of this?
"Of course," he said. "I've actually gone to some cult screenings in Los Angeles just to have fun. And it is fun. I don't take this business too seriously.
"Showgirls was one of those things where the public really teed off, and the plain truth is that it did become one of the great public failures of all time. If you write, you'll have wins and losses, and that was certainly one that lost. I mean, I still have serious lash marks on my back."
The Showgirls debacle was followed by another flop, Jade, an erotic thriller that audiences found neither erotic nor thrilling. Eszterhas found renewal by returning to Cleveland in spirit and in person.
His wife, Naomi, suggested that he rewrite Telling Lies in America, a script Eszterhas had in a file drawer since 1983. The story is based on his memories of Cleveland in the early '60s.
"I've always found tremendous strength, support and warmth here," said Eszterhas, who was 6 when he immigrated with his parents from Hungary. "When Showgirls was going down in flames and Jade was about to burn, the people of Cleveland were nothing but supportive."
Eszterhas lived in Cleveland for about 20 years, working as a reporter at the Plain Dealer from 1967 until 1971. After a 1971-75 stint with Rolling Stone magazine, he turned his attention to screenplays.
Flashdance, with Jennifer Beals as a welder who dances in clubs, became one of the biggest hits of 1983. He followed that box-office smash with Jagged Edge (1985), Hearts of Fire (1987) and Betrayed (1988).
His reputation went from hot to scorching, however, when he received a record $3 million for the Basic Instinct screenplay in 1992.
Compare that figure with the entire budget for Telling Lies in America, which Eszterhas estimates at $4 million.
"So you know this is very much a labor of love," Eszterhas said. "This is one from the heart because this is a place that's deep in my heart and soul. Cleveland has an individuality that's very much part of this script, and that individuality hasn't changed since I was a kid growing up here.
"I'll tell you how Cleveland hasn't changed. It's still a shot-and-beer, rock 'n' roll kind of town."
Playing a character loosely based on Eszterhas, Brad Renfro (The Client) is Karchy, an immigrant boy befriended by a fast-talking Cleveland disc jockey (Kevin Bacon) caught up in the payola scandal of 1961. Directed by Guy Ferland (The Babysitter), Telling Lies in America features Oscar winner Maximilian Schell as Karchy's father.
Eszterhas has three other films in various stages of production, including One Night Stand with Wesley Snipes and Nastassia Kinski. While no release date has been set for Telling Lies in America, the writer has decided on where the premiere will be.
"It will be here, in Cleveland, probably at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," Eszterhas said. "Anywhere else? Over my dead body."

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