I met director-producer Roy Campanella Jr. at Jerry's Deli on Beverly Boulevard on June 18, 2002.
A film history buff, and the creator of the mini-studio Directors' Circle Filmworks, Campanella (son of baseball great Roy Campanella) seeks to emulate "the old studio operation. The buck stops here with one person.
"I made a longterm lease of 12,000 square feet at the Lacy Street [Production Center] north of downtown LA. There's production space, art department, wardrobe... We have a small construction mill. Lacy was really not a studio but a series of warehouses where you could shoot.
"I had a ten picture slate with BET (Black Entertainment Television cable channel). I decided that with that commitment I could create a studio in microcosm. We have the lowest cost studio you could imagine. The cost of our place per month doesn't run much more than a luxury apartment in Beverly Hills."
Luke: "I had a girlfriend who paid $2500 a month for her Beverly Hills apartment."
Roy: "That's about what I've got 12,000 square feet for."
Luke: "How many employees do you have?"
Roy: "It depends on when we're in production. I studied what [Francis Ford] Coppola had done with Hollywood General [Studios]. I studied the early filmmakers like Louis B. Mayer, Daryl Zanuck, Fox, Jess O'Lansky... When you're in the guerilla filmmaker mode, it makes much more sense to be modular and incremental."
I order an early lunch of a plain three-egg omelet and Roy gets a more exotic omelet with cinnamon toast.
Roy: "We did ten movies (for $850,000 each) over the course of a year-and-a-half. One of them, Masquerade, won an award from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. We're in the Roger Corman AIP style of school but it was the largest slate ever done of African-American feature length films. It was focused on the contemporary African-American experience. I was disappointed that BET hasn't followed up with more original product."
Luke: "Tell me about your upbringing."
Roy: "I grew up in Manhattan, Long Island and Westchester. I have four sisters and three brothers. My dad was married three times. My mom died of a heart attack when I was 13. My parents were separated. So I went to live with my dad in Manhattan. I graduated from Woodlands High School in Hartsdale at the top of my class. I was the first student from Woodlands to go to Harvard. I majored in Anthropology. I graduated Cum Laude. I have an MBA from Columbia in 1979. I got it on a CBS scholarship in a company-wide competition. In between, I was at WGBH [public television station in Boston] as a director-camerman-editor. I went to CBS in New York as an editor.
"I'd always wanted to work in film. I was raised on Hollywood pictures but I wasn't enamored with them. I wrote MGM when I was ten years old, asking how many directors and producers they had under contract and things like that. They never answered my letter so I was never enamored of Hollywood. I'm an East Coast guy in mindset but so much of the industry is based out here. My fascination dates back to my earliest childhood when I didn't even know what the term 'film director' meant.
"After Columbia, I moved to Los Angeles. I worked for CBS for three years as a program executive in TV movies and miniseries. We went from conception to completion. It was an old Hollywood studio situation. People would come in and pitch. If we picked it up, we'd be there for the development of the script. We'd screen dailies. We'd screen the rough cut. We'd screen the final cut. As opposed to TV series, where you might have one exec work on a pilot and then you might have another exec following through.
"My real passion is directing. I produce because I have the requisite skills to do it. You can protect yourself more as a director by producer. I'm entrepreneurial. That's a drive you have to be born with. Producing satisfies that. I like the collaborative process that characterizes filmmaking. Producing is not lonely like writing. I enjoy screenwriting but it is so damn lonely. But with producing you're constantly dealing with people and events...
"One of the most influential primers on producing for me was David O. Selznick's essay from when he delivered a lecture at Columbia University around 1938. It's in the rear of the book 'Memo from David O. Selznick.' All of his memos are really instructional. It's a paperback that I would highly recommend. Selznick was such a creative producer. To many directors, of course, he was a pain in the ass, but you can learn a lot from his memos. His lecture on producing provides an overview which is excellent for someone starting out.
"I've directed about 100 primetime hours of TV including episodes of Lou Grant, Knots Landing, Simon & Simon, Knight Rider, Hotel, Wiseguy and Baywatch."
Luke: "What are your favorite and least favorite parts of Hollywood?"
Roy: "Least favorite first. The dealmaking. This is coming from someone who, by academic training, is a social anthropologist. The social pecking order, the system of rituals, the ceremonies of Hollywood work against the organic creative filmmaking process. It's a culture that breeds fear, loathing, contempt, envy, superficiality, backstabbing, overindulgence, corruption, greed... I could go on. There are some fine people in Hollywood. But it is so rampant in the culture that the finest person can end up tarnished."
Luke: "What rituals lead to those vices?"
Roy: "The perfunctory meeting. Your on the buyer's side. I was there. I worked with some fine people like Jane Rosenthal, who now runs Tribeca. You are there sometimes to simply have a courtesy meeting. An individual can come in with a good unique concept. Their creative vision can be distinctive. But you know that the powers that be will never make a movie with this person because he doesn't have the relationships. As a favor, you might, after a meeting like that, you might point that person in the direction of a more respected and senior supplier so that the person can get a shot. Meanwhile, the corporate culture subscribes to the view that it's development posture is story-related. And individuals throughout the executive structure will articulate the point of view that if you bring a good story to us, we're going to make it.
"The industry is more inclusive now but the concentration of ownership is greater and this works against the introduction of new talent and the free flow of fresh creative ideas.
"I've seen so many examples of where the inarticulate white guy has sold a story and an articulate non-white hasn't. If you're not white, you better have your stuff together. I'm not saying that anyone is running around being racist. I think a lot of this stuff is unconscious. The producer who's proven himself can come in and have a rapport with the individual he's pitching to that's going to be of a higher distinction than my rapport. Usually the nonwhite producer has to remind the executive he's pitching to what his credentials are... I've created a little studio downtown. I constantly have to remind people that it exists. That I did a slate of ten pictures. My white colleague would not have to remind people because it would become the common knowledge of the community.
"In Hollywood, perception can be everything. There's an obsession with the artifacts of success. The right car and the right home. Having the right agent. And the right agent having the right clients.
"A number of my African-American colleagues have expressed exactly the same thing that I just expressed. Meanwhile, we keep seeing the same stories over and over.
"I believe in good storytelling. I have a natural affinity for stories that come from the African-American experience."
Luke: "Who was the Los Angeles Dodger executive who got in trouble on Nightline? Al Campanis."
Roy: "I happened to see that. I couldn't believe it. I was in New York on a business trip. The program was just a tribute to Jackie Robinson. The questions were softball. And he starts making these inane unconsciously racist statements. He wasn't trying to be vicious. Black people can't swim. They don't have the faculties. I was so amused that I called my old man. 'You've got to watch Nightline. Al Campanis is making an absolute fool of himself.' My father was amazed too.
"My dad was a tolerant kind of guy but there was nothing he could to do. Afterwards, Campanis came to him. They share a little simpatico because they played in the minor leagues together. My dad was half Sicilian.
"I was close to my dad. He was the first person to encourage me to pursue this career. He told me to do what I loved most. We also bumped heads. He was the quintessential jock."
Luke: "Did you see your dad play pro ball?"
Roy: "Only for a couple of years. Then he had that auto accident which left him a quadriplegic."
Luke: "What's your favorite part of the job as a producer?"
Roy: "Selecting material. Working with a writer. Working with the director. The creative collaboration is a joy. It's like the joy of having a child.
"I produced and directed the 1988 TV movie Body of Evidence starring Barry Bostwick and Margot Kidder. It's about a small town in New England that's experiencing a wave of serial murders. At the center of it is a nurse, Margot Kidder, who recently married the town's forensic pathologist Barry Bostwick. It turns out that she's married to the killer. It's a spin on the Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion."
Luke: "That was just a few years before Margot Kidder's breakdown. Was she ok then?"
Roy: "Not in my opinion. She had her good days and her bad days. Unfortunately she had some substance abuse problems. She always said her big problem was that the roles that she wanted, she felt she wasn't good enough for, and the roles that she got, she felt she was better than. I said to her, 'Margot, when you outline your life like that you paint yourself into a corner that it is almost impossible to get out of. It would be so much more healthy to look at the work that you have and find the joy in it. And find the redemption in it. And the path in it to transcend whatever problems you have to reach a level of performance and satisfaction within yourself to allow the other things that you want to do to come to you.' She half-listened."
Luke: "As a producer or director, do you find yourself having to play parent?"
Roy: "You have to be everything that you need to be - friend, advisor, parent, interpreter, guide..."
Luke: "What do you think about gangster rap, and the lyrics that advocate killing police?"
Roy: "I'm more concerned about the hatred of women in gangster rap. Gangster rap is a symptom of a bigger social ill. There is certainly a place for it as artistic observation but it seems to feed on itself because of its commercial success. This success heightens the appeal of this pathology. I'm less worried about the resistance to authority because certain authority elements within society have targeted those individuals singing about them. So there is some legitimate resistance going on."
Luke: "So when Ice T does a song called Cop Killer, you think that is a legitimate form of resistance?"
Roy: "I think singing about it is a lot better than going out and doing it. It's important to have that artistic safety valve that you can turn and let it out. The ability to vent has really helped us. Free expression has helped the American society release a lot of the pent-up frustrations."
Luke: "So if there was a white gangster rap group singing about killing Negroes, you'd feel the same way?"
Roy: "They've got a right to do it. But there's not an equivalency there. The cop killer thing was a resistance to a certain level of oppression that was occurring, regardless of whether the cop was white or black. You are at one level of society and you are being restricted by law enforcement.
"By the way, I don't encourage to kill cops. Nothing in my work has ever come close. But just as a student of society... I've seen what it is like to live in housing projects. There are only three degrees of separation in the African-American community between any one individual and other individuals encountering different experiences.
"Often the argument gets confused and we start making these equivalencies that don't translate.
"The cop killer piece [by Ice T] was very provocative. If I were producing his album, would I have advised him to do it? Probably not. But I'm not producing it. But at the time he made it, there had been a number of shootings of unarmed black men by police officers.
"I don't think there's any real connection between that song and any real acts of violence. It's not like there have been a wave of killings. I think his artistic expression gave vent to frustration. By coming out, this helped those individuals in much worse conditions feel vindicated, feel that there is someone on the artistic side who understands their pain and has given voice to it. I'm saying that it is important to give voice to that stuff and let it out as opposed to holding it in and say that the only answer is for me to go do this [kill a cop].
"Ice T now plays a cop on [the TV show] Law & Order every week. He's on the Special Victims Unit of Law & Order on Friday nights. That transcendence is one of the beauties of American life. I think he's taken along with him many of the people who listened to the other stuff.
"The skinhead, like their predecessors such as the Klu Klux Klan, are not talking about striking out against a group that is oppressing them, a legitimate armed group in authority in their neighborhood that's humiliating them, that's targeting them... The group you describe is engaging in a form of terrorism. I don't agree with that any more than an African-American rap group saying let's go out and kill whites."
Luke: "Do you like the work of Spike Lee?"
Roy: "I'm amazed by his ascendancy. He has a tremendous body of work. It's not the kind of filmmaking and storytelling that I would do. Stylistically, it's agit-prop. It's an approach to filmmaking that calls attention to its stylistic elements as much as to its substance. My approach leans towards allowing form and content to be integrated. This is traditional Hollywood filmmaking. You just have to think of the work of directors like John Ford, Howard Hawkes, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Ernest Lubitsch, and Francis Ford Coppola. I like it when the audience forgets it's watching a movie. I like it when all of my camera angles and the way that it is cut feels so right to the audience that they drift into the center of the story.
"I always know that I am watching a Spike Lee movie. I always know that this is such-and-such an actor. I never get lost in it. But I respect it.
"I really like the movie Insomnia [directed by Christopher Nolan]. It uses sophisticated stylistic devices but they are appropriate to the times we live in. They are not jarring anymore because of the sophistication of the viewer."